Wednesday, July 26, 2017

If Jackson Pollock Could Write

Book Review: Big Lonesome by Joseph Scapellato

The artist Jackson Pollock was famous for his "action paintings", in which he would tack a large canvas to the floor and drip, splatter, and smear paint across it's entire surface. It was the act of painting that was important, not what (if anything) the painting showed.

His work was performance art, using paint as a medium. He even went to the extent of titling his paintings by number, rather than assigning names, to avoid preconceptions by the viewer.

There are people that can look at a Jackson Pollock painting and see something, who are able to coalesce the random spattering of paint into a theme or a concept or even a scene. Personally I believe this is more a function of their own consciousness, not the intent of the artist. For Pollock, the activity of painting was more important than what was being painted.

Joseph Scapellato's collection of short stories, Big Lonesome, swings between episodes of the real ("Immigrants", "Company"), to random gatherings of words, dripped onto pages apparently left lying on the floor ("Horseman Cowboy"). In the first case, the object is clear to anyone that reads it. In the second case, the reader's ability to discern a message may rely more on wishful thinking and a desire to see something where nothing exists. The mere act of putting words (or paint) on paper does not automatically make it art, or provide it with meaning.

At its best, Big Lonesome provides us with a montage of dispirited characters, coping with the small, individual loneliness that is human existence, and he manages to do it in a distinctive and incisive manner. The "surreal" bits in between intrude into this fabric, but without the redeeming quality of providing a counterpoint. They seem to exist simply to create a perception of artistic merit, but instead appear more like 'Magic Eye' paintings that have been hung among the Masters in an art gallery. If you squint your eyes and tilt your head just right, you may see something, but in the end it diverts and distracts rather than enlightens.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Don't Judge a Book by its Length

Book Review: Metis Beach by Claudine Bourbonnais

I find that there's a certain "weighing-in" that goes on when I am confronted by a lengthy new book. Part of it is, no doubt, a holdover from the English classes I took in high school.

Just when you thought you might actually see the bottom of the pile of homework, a masochistic teacher would assign "War and Peace" to read and report on in two weeks (my apologies to Tolstoy).

Even without that hanging over my head, there is still a hesitation to embark on a drawn out literary expedition. Reading is a hobby, hopefully an enjoyable one, but it does require an expenditure of time and attention. Obviously, a longer book takes longer to read, but there is the added effort of keeping track of more characters over an extended plot line. In short, it becomes work, and leaves the reader hoping that the author will help along the way, and the payoff will be worth the labor.

In the case of Claudine Bourbonnais' debut novel, Metis Beach, the rewards did not quite compensate for the effort. What the back matter copy describes as a "historical epic" and a "chronicle of the great American Sixties" was a lengthy, meandering story of a young man's journey across two countries over the course of three decades. There were brief nods, Forest Gump style, to landmark events like the March on Washington, but the characters serve more as observers than participants in this larger picture.

The result is an unhappy melding of a coming of age story (worthwhile on its own merits) with almost random historical events. Whether this was an effort to set a place in time for the story, or to try to link the character's haphazard progress with the growing pains of American society, I'm really not sure. I suspect that it was both, but in the end Metis Beach accomplishes neither. Having grown up in the Sixties, to me the references seemed impersonal and detached, as if they were culled from newspaper headlines rather than experience. They end up detracting from the personal aspect of the story, rather than adding to it.

Sometimes less is more, and I think Ms. Bourbonnais may have bitten off more than she could chew. The story of Roman Carr/Romain Carrier actually would stand better on its own, shorn of the historical references. That would still leave plenty of meat on the bone, so to speak; buried in Metis Beach is an excellent character study, as well as a view into the Canadian French/English dichotomy. Sometimes the measure of a book is what the author leaves out.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

In the Shadow of Hemingway

Book Review: Drought by Ronald Fraser

When the talk turns to novels about Spain and the Spanish Civil War, men of a certain age (including me) will immediately turn to Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway turned his minimalist realist eye on the Spanish Civil War novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, and opened the door to a world unknown to most Americans. In Drought, Ronald Fraser picks up where Hemingway left off, historically and stylistically, and gives us a view of Spain where the echoes of the Civil War can still be heard. Old animosities lie hidden, but are neither forgotten nor forgiven, and the trust between neighbors is still a tentative thing.

Writing in a spare style reminiscent of Hemingway, Fraser has penned what can almost be regarded as a sequel to For Whom the Bell Tolls. Parallels exist between the characters of both novels, including the foreign protagonist. Just as the bridge played a central role in Hemingway's tale, Fraser has a dam to do the heavy lifting. Hemingway's "iceberg" storytelling style is evident in both stories; the reader must divine motives and personalities from the actions and dialog of the characters.

And so the question becomes, is Drought the heir apparent of For Whom the Bell Tolls, or is it simply fan fiction? I just finished my second reading of Drought, with my copy of Hemingway at hand, and I will admit the comparison is favorable. Fraser may not be a match for one of the masters of American literature, but he has certainly given us more than a shadow of his intent, and a clear but fleeting echo of the master's voice.