Currently Downloading: Building Excellent Sentences. Part of The Excellent Lectures series, informed of via the catalogue they sent my way because of that Harper’s Magazine subscription. Might as well. Suppose I’m downloading in bad faith, but it might also be bad faith to send me so many targeted ads, and this one is in American prices, with multiple pages on multiple lecture series devoted to the “American Civil War” or “The American Revolution”, but with a cover that proclaims it is the “Canadian Edition” of their catalogue, underneath a great big Maple Leaf. Not that those subjects aren’t interesting, but Boy Do They Know Us: we’ll take whatever, and we’ll enjoy it, just tell us it’s just for us, even if it isn’t
I feel guilty talking about this on the internet, but it’ll work out in their favour, anyway: in forty years (or four) when I’m an old man in a Gilligan-cap, khaki shorts, and a maroon polo, I’ll probably buy one of their series, to enjoy in my home (if I have one) or my car (ditto, that)
Why did I bring it up? Because the first lecture is called: “A Sequence of Words”, which, though I’ve no-doubt is interesting, is a bit underwhelming on first, second, and third glance
I just finished reading Coming Soon!!!, by John Barth. It’s a “Post-modern” (emphasis on Po and Mo) novel about a competition between an aspiring novelist (the young Johns Hopkins Johnson) versus an accomplished novelist meant to be John Barth himself. Perspective switches back and forth between “aspirant” and “emeritus” which is how they are, for the most part, referred. Who really wrote the novel? Aspirant, Emeritus, or a mysterious a-gendered third character, Ditsy? Allusions and metaphors abound, to the Bible, to One Thousand and One Nights, to Barth’s first novel The Floating Opera, and to showboats and Showboat, inspiration for that first novel. For long sections of Coming Soon!!! it feels like you are picking your way through a weed-tangled, inter-textual, marsh (which may have been the point), but it’s too long on weeds and short on scene to provide any real pleasure
What makes the book even drier is that two of the three voices are so caught-up in their own vernaculars and syntax that at many points I considered putting the book down without finishing. (The young characters speak with a “Gerbil! Exclamation-marked! Urgency!” a sixty-nine year old man might find amusing, but to everyone else reads difficult/annoying, while the Ditsy character speaks with a South-something twang that requires re-reading after re-reading, for those not familiar with it). But CS!!! settles into “Barth’s” voice somewhere before the midpoint, and, so settled, finds a rhythm, and sticks to it. The story develops, and it concludes in a way that is satisfying, but maybe not worth the two-hundred and fifty marsh-cramped pages in the middle. It drains you in a way that only much larger books can. There must be a way to make it shorter and more compelling, without so much endless re-treading of the same material…
I could say a lot about the book. I liked it, but conditionally. Read it if it’s your “Thing” (the best of Douglas Coupland mixed with the worst of Dave Eggers, spiced with the clock-ticking comprehensiveness of Midnight’s Children) or you’re curious, but otherwise stay away. It’s hard to regret a book, any book, but I haven’t felt this drained after finishing one since Water for Elephants; at least Coming Soon!!! is more aware of itself and provides lots to talk about. I’d want you to read it for that reason, but I don’t want the responsibility of being the reason for your reading it, understand? It’s the kind of book I’d suggest for a book group, only suggesting it would be sadistic and/or masochistic. It makes me want to read more Barth, because now that I’m aware of him, his other books sound more coherent and more interesting (The Sot-Weed Factor and The Floating Opera are up there on my list somewhere, now), and I think I might enjoy them in a way that I didn’t Coming Soon!!!
If CS!!! was overlong and overwrought, Klee Wyck, by Emily Carr, is the exact opposite. The book is written in a spare prose that is elegant, poetic, and unpretentious. Carr, known more as a painter, was not well-read, but she applied herself to reducing her words in the same way she reduced her famous paintings, paring down the elements until only the essentials remained. I read Klee Wyck in about two days, and her haunting stories about abandoned Haida villages and their totems sustained and nourished me for the latter half of Coming Soon!!! If you think either Canadian literature or Emily Carr is boring (I thought both once, the latter most recently), you should probably read Klee Wyck.
Obviously, I think more reviews should end with Reading Rainbow-style reccomendations.