THE THIRD POLICEMAN by Flann O’Brien

thethirdpolicemanThis was written in 1940 by Irish writer Flann O’Brien, but was not published until after he died in 1967.  It is what I would call absurdist speculative fiction.  Speculative fiction is a broad category of narrative fiction that includes elements, settings and characters created out of imagination and speculation rather than based on reality and everyday life. It encompasses the genres of science fiction, fantasy, science fantasy, horror, alternative history, and magic realism.   And of course, there is  “suppositional fiction”, which is sometimes used as a sub-category designating fiction in which characters and stories are constrained by an internally consistent world, but not necessarily one defined by any particular genre.

So, yeah, it could be anything.  Publishers need a genre into which they can slot the book so they can market it.  Bookshops need a genre so they can shelve the thing.  But so much wonderful fiction doesn’t really fit neatly into one category or another, but bleeds all over the place,  leaving us Gentle Readers scratching our heads after reading some of this stuff and muttering, “What the flapjacks WAS that thing?”

This story is set in rural Ireland in I suppose what was current time at the date of the writing.  A young man is orphaned while attending boarding school.  Somehow, he loses a leg, and is fitted with a wooden prothesis, none of which has anything to do with the story, but is just part of his description.  A caretaker is on the property which consists of a farm and a tavern.  When the young man graduates, he comes home to find the farm in deplorable condition, and the tavern not making any money.   He demands redress from the lazy and obviously thieving caretaker, but the man gives many excuses for why the place is in the state it is in, and promises to set it all to rights in a few months.  Months turn into more months, and the caretaker  tells the young man that what is needed is an infusion of money.   But where to get it?

The caretaker, Divney, muses on the fact that a miserly old man lives alone just down the road, and is reported to have a great deal of money hidden in his house. So Divney and the young man, whose name we never learn, plan to ambush him at night,  and then go to the house to steal the money.  This they do, with Divney whacking the old man comatose, and our protagonist giving him the final blow with a shovel.  They then bury the body.

When they go to the house to search for the money, Divney tells the kid he will wait outside while the kid does the search.  While bending over a floorboard,  the kid suffers a severe blow.  When he regains consciousness, he sees a figure sitting in a chair in the dark house.  EEEK.  It is the old man they had killed.  WTF?

They have a conversation, the kid tells Joe Mathers, the dead guy, he is looking for the box of money.  Joe suggests they go to the local police for assistance, and off they go.

On their way, they meet a character who directs them to the police barracks.

As I came round the bend of the road an extraordinary spectacle was presented to me.  About a hundred yards away on the left-hand side was a house which astonished me.  It looked as it if were painted like an advertisement on a board on the roadside and indeed very poorly painted.  It looked completely false and unconvincing.  It did not seem to have any depth of breadth and looked as if it would not deceive a child. …. my gaze faltered about the thing uncomprehendlingly as if at least one of the customary dimensions was missing.

As the strange object began to acquire more dimensionality, Joe (who could not be seen by anyone) and our boy entered, to be greeted by a large policeman.

He had white enameled teeth which came, I had no doubt, from Manchester, two rows of them arranged in the interior of his mouth and when he smiled it was a fine sight to see, like Delph on a neat country dresser.

The policeman asks if they have come about a bicycle, and from here on, any semblance to normality ceases, although our boy constantly tries to adjust his thinking.

There is a great concern about bicycles, one policeman has made a series of nesting boxes, which become infinitely small, and cannot be seen with the naked eye.    One policeman claims that when one rides a bicycle for many years, the person becomes one with the bicycle, and the bicycle becomes part human.  You can tell a human who has become his bicycle by the way he stands propped against a wall on one elbow, and if not propped up, falls down.

Each day the police go to a secret place hidden deep in the earth to regulate the machinery which has to do with omnium, the fundamental energy of the universe.  This vast place exists where time stands still, or almost so.

Somehow our boy is accused of a crime and is sentenced to hang.  He manages to escape, goes to his home to find his old caretaker, Divney, now, 16 years later, married with children.  Divney can see the narrator, although the others cannot, and he has a heart attack from the shock. He shouts that our boy was supposed to be dead, for the black box was not filled with money but a bomb and it exploded when he reached for it. The young man leaves Divney on the floor, apparently dying.

He leaves for the police station and is joined on the road by Divney.  The approach to the barracks is in the same words as the first time, the story having circled back on itself.   And we now know, if we hadn’t guessed already, that our boy is dead, and that all that has occurred has happened in the afterlife.

A funny look at physics

Everything is composed of small particles of itself and they are flying around in concentric circles and arcs and segments and innumerable other geometrical figures too numerous to mention collectively, never standing still or resting but spinning away and darting hither and thither and back again, all the time on the go.  These diminutive gentlemen are called atoms.

Now take a sheep.  What is a sheep only millions of little bits of sheepness whirling around and doing intricate convolutions inside the sheep?  What else is it but that?

One of the side plots is how our young man wishes to write the definite critique of de Selby, a philosopher with bizarre ideas.  The book is written in the first person, so our narrator inserts quotes from de Selby from time to time, and in his musings on the efforts of de Selby to prove one esoteric point or another, even gives us footnotes that refer to de Selby’s greatest work.

At one point, after escaping from the police barracks, he sees a light on in Mather’s house, crawls through a window and finds himself between the walls, where the third policeman, heretofore never seen, has set up an office in the extremely narrow confines.   If you have seen Being John Malkovich, you will have some idea of what this entails.

It is absurdist lit, without I am sure, having that intention.  It was written mostly to have a laugh, and it is that, but since it toys with our notions of time, death, souls, the essence of bicycles,  matter, and boundaries,  it is so much more than just a giggle.

 

 

 

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THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach

art-of-fieldingBaseball, the great American pastime.  Who said that?  Not sure, and I am also not sure why I acquired a book about baseball.   I have a 5-inning attention span for baseball.   But I certainly am glad I did get this book, because I absolutely loved it.

It is about baseball, but really, it is about so much more than the game.  It starts off being about shortstop Henry Skrimshander, a quiet kid from South Dakota who is a phenom at the shortstop position.  He is seen in a high school game by a young man who is a freshman in a Wisconsin college which has a good baseball program but an abysmal win record.  Abysmal.   The frosh knocks himself out to get Henry enrolled in the college on a full ride sports scholarship, and takes him under his wing.

Henry’s absolute idol is Aparicio Rodriguez, the greatest shortstop ever, who wrote a book, “The Art of Fielding”,  a kind of Compleat Angler for baseball, part instruction on the game and techniques, part philosophical mumbo-jumbo.  Don’t bother looking it up.  It is all fictional.

Henry really is phenomenal, but Mike, his mentor, is phenomenal as well in his own way, as a people motivator and team captain.  He also plays football, and his body is showing the strain.

We meet the president of the college, learn a great deal about him, then his semi-estranged daughter who comes back into his life.

We meet Henry’s roommate, Owen, a marvelously intelligent  gay man who is also on full scholarship, and who also plays on the baseball team.  We get to now others of the team,  and the coach.

Henry is on his way to a possible 3rd round draft pick in the majors by his junior year, when he chokes.  It happens after a long no-error streak, when he throws a somewhat wayward ball that is grabbed by the wind off the lake, sails into the dugout and bangs his roommate on the head.  Henry is sure he killed Owen,  that fortunately, that was not the case.   That started Henry’s mental decline into a pit of depression.  He loses the interest of the scouts, eventually quits the team, and sinks lower and lower into a black abyss.

The team, for the first time in a hundred years, is in line for conference champs, regionals, and maybe the state.  At the crucial game, Henry shows up, and saves the day.  I am not telling you how.  It is just beautiful.

After being hospitalized for malnutrition, and kept in the psych ward for a while, Henry recovers,  all ends are beautifully tied up to the satisfaction of all.  Well, to my satisfaction, anyway.

There are many other subplots which I am not telling you about because I really want you to read the book, but these subplots all thread their way throughout the main story, and as in all good books, ultimately come together to form a coherent whole.

The paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport… You loved it because you considered it an art:  an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition.

Baseball was an art, but to excel at it, you had to become a machine.

Any activity of interest to us can become an obsession, can become our whole life, but there is a cost.  This lovely story examines that cost, and looks at the idea of obsession, not just Henry’s, but the several others that are featured in the story.

Loved it.  Just loved it.

THE HOUSE OF VELVET AND GLASS by Katherine Howe

house-of-velvet-and-glassAn absolutely wonderful historical novel set in two periods and places.  One period, late 1868 in Shanghai, and the other mid teens, 1900s in Boston, Mass.

It is about the sinking of the Titanic, spiritualism as practiced in that day, pre-war Boston, and a smidge of paranormalism.  Is that a word?  Well, it is now, because I said so.

Sibyl Allston, a young woman in her twenties, lives with her widowed father and younger brother.  Her mother and younger sister died in 1912 while traveling aboard the Titantic on its maiden voyage.

Sibyl’s mother had been a devotee of spiritualism, attending seances at the private quarters of Mrs. Dee, a celebrated medium, taking Sibyl with her on many occasions.  After the deaths of the two women, Sibyl continue attending, hoping to contact her dead family members.  She is given a small globe, almost a toy, as a scrying glass.

The story goes back and forth between her father’s experience as a young man in Shanghai as a sailor, before he made his fortune in shipping, and events in Boston after the sinking of the Titanic and before World War I started, and events on board the ship as the mother was active in getting her younger daughter married off, since those efforts failed with the unmarried Sibyl.

Sibyl’s brother is kicked out of his university for unbecoming conduct with a young woman of uncertain background, and is found badly beaten one night in the lodging of the girlfriend.  The Allston family takes the young girl under their wing, and the girl takes Sibyl to an opium den, where Sibyl tries it and experiences amazing visions while looking at the scrying glass.    She thinks she sees the ship and the events leading up to its sinking.

Back in Shanghai, her father had the same experience when a fellow sailor took him to an opium den, of seeing the future of a couple of his shipmates.

So it is all about having the ‘sight’,  and what Sibyl continues to see in her glass,  opiate addiction, which was even in those days very common, as the stuff was found in cough medicines, sleeping pills,  tooth drops for babies.  At the time of the setting of the story, the government had begun to set up regulations concerning its use.

There is an unresolved romantic interest with the son of her father’s business partner,  and a medium who claims, in spite of the flagrant bells and whistles of the seances she produces, that she really does have the ‘sight’, but that her customers expect a more flamboyant experience, and so she provides that for them.

Great story, loved it!   Just could not put it down!

Here are some interesting facts for you:

Titanic’s loss was shocking because it revealed the real ramifications of a wealth disparity that is staggering even by today’s standards.  The fact is, as first-class women passengers, Eulah [the sister] and Helen [the mother] Allston would almost certainly have made it into a lifeboat in real life.  Only four first-class women passengers did not.  By comparison, the mortality rate for all third-class passengers, including children, was nearly 75 percent.  A first-class parlor suite ticket in 1912 cost $4,350, which some estimate to be the equivalent of over $90,000 in modern dollars — more akin to purchasing a ticket to outer space on Virgin Galactic.  …. the clear relationship between wealth and the odds of survival.

And about the drugs

This period saw technocratic problem-solving at the government level, such as the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, which brought opiates and cocaine under federal regulation for the first time, culminating in the better-known Volstead Act of 1919, which ushered in Prohibition.

titanic

Katherine Howe is the author of the best seller The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane,  which I started reading a while ago and was having trouble getting into it, so I set it aside.  I can see now that I will have to go back and give it another shot, because that title alone just screams READ ME!

 

 

NEFARIOUS DOINGS by Ilsa Evans

nefarious-doingsThere is something about the word ‘nefarious’ that just reaches out to you, tugs on your sleeve and whispers ‘read me’.

Nell Forrest is a mid-life lady with five daughters whose husband left her about seven months ago for something more glamorous.  Five daughters.  Wow.  Anyway, Nell also has what I have come to think of as a ‘cozy mystery mother’ — bossy, interfering, basically insufferable but whom the protagonist suffers anyway.  Why is that?   Why are so many mothers portrayed as bossy and insufferable?  I am certainly not that way.  I swear, I’m NOT!

Nell’s mother runs a bookstore in town, and one night her house is torched and upon putting out the fire, the fire department discovers a dead body in the garage.  Turns out it is the body of the insufferable next door neighbor, who has been accused of abusing his wife and kids, and fighting with Nell’s mom.

Some unauthorized sleuthing on the part of Nell, a newspaper blogger,  puts her in danger, and she receives a threatening phone call.  The plot thickens.  She runs into a neighbor of her mother’s,  who gets a started expression on her face and turns abruptly and walks away.  Nell goes to visit her, and no one answers the door. So, as you do, she pushes on the door, finds it unlocked and walks in, you know, as anyone would.  [eye roll].  She discovers the woman strangled to death, with a local historical society pin caught in her hair.  It is like one Nell’s mother owns, so natch, she takes it out of the woman’s hair, you know, as you do, and pockets it.  [nother eye roll].

Then the assistant to the owner of the local antique store goes missing, and a frantic search is on.  And like in most of these kinds of mysteries, our protagonist is grabbed and left to die by the killer.  Saved at the last moment by the handsome homicide detective.  These kinds of mysteries always have a single woman protagonist and a handsome single homicide detective.   Okay, Okay.  So they’re formulaic.  I liked it anyway.  That’s why they are cozy mysteries — it is comforting to know what is coming next and that there will be a happy ending.  I like happy endings, even if they are part of the formula.   I mean, who wants to read “So she died of the wounds inflicted by the killer and he/she got away to kill again.”

Nice writing, and there is now another in the series.  Happy reading.

NO ALLIGATORS IN SIGHT by Kirsten B. Feldman

no-alligators_feldman-low-res-coverA lovely coming-of-age story of a couple of kids raised — and I use that term loosely — by their divorced father after their mother just up and left them 5 years ago.

Nice example of how maybe competency exams for being allowed to have children might just be a good idea.  The mother is a narcissistic, self-involved woman, and the dad is ….. OK, a drunk.  Alcoholic?  Maybe, but definitely a drunk.  The mother insists on saddling her kids with unusual names so they would stand out and be special.  So she names her daughter Leticia, which being a common name here in Mexico, I don’t consider so bad.  But the brother, born 4 years later, gets stuck with Englebert.   But mom loses interest, and swans off from their Cape Cod home to Key West, Florida, with another man, a brash annoying fellow named Orlando, leaving the drinking dad to muddle through alone with the child care of his then 3 year old son and 8 year old daughter.

So dad does what he has always done, goes to work as a bartender during the day, hangs around drinking with his friends through the evening, leaving little Lettie to take care of the brother pretty much on her own.

For Lettie, the absent mother has taken on aspects of a mystery women, and Lettie is more and more into the idea of seeing her again, although they have never heard from her in that five year interval.   The dad being mostly drunk and stingy, they never have any money, and Lettie takes to minor shoplifting, more for sport than need, and is finally caught changing price tags on a CD,  dad gets totally pissed, and in a flash, sends the kids off to stay with mom in Florida for 6 weeks.

The step father turns out to be awful, the mother not much less so, the visit is terrible, they live only a few steps above poverty and in squalor, Lettie develops, now at 13, the Teenage Mouth, and has a lot to say to her mother about why she left, etc, etc.  You can just imagine.  The mother, meanwhile,  is all “But you are not giving me a chance to make amends.  It is your fault we are not together.”  Told you she was a narcissist.    Well, a week before the kids are due to go back to Cape Cod,  Lettie mouths off big time to her mother, the step father loses his shit, grabs her and her plane ticket, and drops her off at the airport, and drives away.   She is forced to wait there alone through the night until a flight in the morning.  The mother never comes after her.

She returns back home to find that her father is involved with a nice woman from his place of work, has stopped drinking and started attending AA meetings, has cleaned up the house, and has begun actually talking to her.   They fear the mother may not allow the brother to return, but all is well.

Several months later, Lettie is outside her house and a fancy car drives up, and it is her mother, wanting to try again to have a relationship with her kids.  Oh!  Gee, really?  Yeah.  The step father was snagged for smuggling, and is in prison, the mother has divorced him and taken up with another guy, and life goes on.  Lettie says basically, thanks for the relationship offering, but no thanks. Bug off.  We don’t need you.

Epilogue of everybody all grown up, and married, and the mother living in South America being an artist, cue the sweet music, fade to black.

Nice book.  I really enjoyed it.  Nothing new.   Sometimes families suck.  Sometimes you don’t get to have the mother you want, sometimes you just gotta grow up on your own.   But at least it had a realistically happy ending.  The mother never improved, she just kept on being the self-centered person that she was, but dad was able to get his act together.  That is realistic.  Expecting someone to make a 180 degree personality turnaround is not realistic.  I am satisfied with the ending.

 

 

ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Jeanette Winterson

orangesThis is an autobiographical novel written in 1985.   It is about a young woman who is raised by an assertive  Christian fundamentalist mother and a quiet unassuming father, in England, where she is absorbed into the evangelical community, eventually even doing her own preaching.

It is terribly funny in places, and terribly sad in others,  a well-written examination of the life, secret and public, of a girl who slowly learns and reveals to us that she is a lesbian.   It was made into a BBC television drama in 1989.

The writing is witty, drizzled with irony and sarcasm,  and the first three quarters of the book are so much fun, but in that last part she gets kind of sermonizing, which I always find unpleasant.  I dislike officious personal philosophy dressed up as character dialog.  I developed that aversion back when I read Any Rand, and it has never left me.  Well, my aversion to Ayn Rand in general has never left me, but that is for another post.

Oh. Yeah.  And it has Sparknotes.   I also have an aversion to the idea that we readers can’t read anything deeper than Harlequin romances and understand them without somebody else explaining to us what it all means.

Let’s see, how about a couple of clever quotes?  OK, you talked me into it:

[About a famous missionary whom the church supported] — To celebrate his ten thousandth convert, the pastor had been funded to take a long holiday and tour his collection of weapons, amulets, idos and primitive methods of contraception.  The exhibition was called ‘Saved by Grace Alone.’

And

I was just in time to see the retreating shapes of Mrs. Spencer and Mrs. Sparrow, ripe plums of indignation falling from them.

And finally,

I had won yet another Bible quiz competition, and to my great relief had been picked as narrator for the Sunday School Pageant.  I had been Mary for the last three years, and there was nothing else I could bring to the part.

And since there is nothing else I can bring to the part of reviewer here, I bid you adieu.   Have fun reading this lovely book.

 

THE EMPATHY EXAMS by Leslie Jamison

empathy-examsThis is a collection of essays about pain and unhappiness and sh*t that happens and our responses to our own pain and to the pain of others.  Since I am all about empathy and compassion and all that good stuff,  and try hard not to drive too far into Snarkyland without my GPS,  I figured that this was the book for me.

Except it wasn’t.  Geez, what a self-serving, egocentric  piece of it prestigious writer workshop claptrap that, as one reviewer put it,  “…just drips with MFA-ishness: for example, saying that “It was like something is XYZ, until it absolutely isn’t”.   

She examines all kinds of diverse situations of pain and unhappiness, such as a convention of people who have a non-disease they swear is real, a tour of riot-ruined L.A.,  a stint in Nicaragua where she got punched in the face by a mugger, (and frankly, after wading through this book I myself wanted to punch her in the face to remove the smug aren’t-I-just_so-terribly-erudite-and-precious look off her keyboard),  a wander through the story of three boys in Arkansas who got prison sentences for the murder of three other boys but it turns out twenty years later that maybe they didn’t murder those boys after all so they were released,  and yet we never felt she really felt sorry about any of this stuff she writes about  (except for the broken face which an ‘expensive surgeon’ in L.A. couldn’t really fix properly), but was more interested in showing us how she looked being empathetic about it all.

Oh, Buddha, save me from mannered expositions of the writer’s personal almost non-existent emotions.  A Kardashian-style look at events:  look at me looking at this event, this subject, this theme, except with less cleavage.  Self-righteous mutton dressed as lamb.  She tells us that Faulkner wrote “Tragedy is second-hand.”   And so is the empathy in this book.

For me, my only worthwhile takeaway from this book was, “You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.”    And it wasn’t even original.  Epicetus said that in the 100s AD.  Honey, take your skinny-assed, Harvard-degree corpse and maybe stick with the Iowa Writers Workshop fiction which you constantly tell us you write.