Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Inherent Vice vs. Play It As It Lays

I’m on a 60s LA kick.  Just finished up Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays and Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.  Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is on deck, which could serve as a nice capper to this run.

Play It As It Lays and Inherent Vice share a frayed vision of the 60s, but the similarities stop there.  Play It As It Lays is desperate, sad, and heartbreaking. It is steeped in melancholy.  If the 60s were supposed to be liberating and life affirming, the characters in this book never got the memo.  It’s a crashing dream.  We get snippets of the life of Maria.  Model turned actress turned Hollywood wife heading for a crack up.  All the booze, the drugs and loose morals do nothing but undermine her self-worth.  It’s a haunting book.  Play It As It Lays, written in 1970, seems ahead of its time in re-evaluating the 60s or certainly poking holes in the Eden-esque 60s mythology.

Inherent Vice, on the other hand, fully plays into that myth.  Free love and free drugs abound.  Surf music is on the radio, rock and roll is in the streets, and revolution is in the air.  But this is a crime novel, so not all is well.  A Cointelpro sting, a drug ring, and a bizarre real-estate scandal threaten the stoners’ surf paradise. However, Pynchon’s characters remain oblivious to the menace, having a rollicking good time.  They all are just too stoned to be too concerned.

Plopped down in 1969, months after the Manson murders, Inherent Vice is a hazy, drug-fueled noir.  It owes a huge debt to Raymond Chandler, but floats in a psychedelic fog. I loved it at times, but at other points the haze got a bit thick.  With an intensely convoluted plot, filled with oodles of characters, the narrative slip slides around in a cloud of pot smoke, oft times obscuring the narrative.  At some level that approach leaves you with some impressionistic scenes, but with so many plot turns to keep track of, confusion ensues.  Interestingly, I heard an interview with Paul Thomas Anderson, who adapted Inherent Vice for the screen last year.  I have yet to see the movie, but he talks about using Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye as a model for his film.  This completely informed my reading of Inherent Vice.  Altman’s take on Chandler is narratively challenged and heavy on vibe.  It’s elusive and hard to pin down.  I was never the hugest fan, but the mood of that film has stuck with me years after viewing.  Though I didn’t love Inherent Vice throughout, it actually has fueled my interest to take in the movie.  It seems ripe for the screen, a dizzying visual ride, prone to slipping in and out of the narrative fold.  I can get behind that.

On a side note, I haven’t read Pynchon since college.  I loved him then, but haven’t read any of the comeback novels.  I couldn’t help being struck by how wacky and goofy Inherent Vice was.  Great heaps of Carl Hiaasen craziness abound in these pages.  So my question is whether Hiaasen’s books are hugely influenced by early Pynchon or whether Pynchon has succumbed to influences by more modern writers?  And speaking of modern influences, there a bit of James Ellroy and bit of The Big Lebowski floating around in this Inherent stew.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

The hype was thick.  My Facebook feed full of friends raving about the new Mad Max.  I saw it.  I liked it.  It had beautiful cinematography.  So many breathtaking,  impressionistic landscapes.  Perhaps they were all crafted digitally. Who cares, they were stunning artistic achievements.  There was great art direction.   I’m not a car guy, but I loved some of the vehicles.  Definitely some Big Daddy Roth inspired muscle.  There were some fun chase scenes, perhaps bordering on Hanna-Barbera Wacky Races silliness.  Was it feminist?  I suppose it was. Though, for me it was feminist the way animated kids movies are environmentalist.  In other words, some light exploration of the issues at hand.  I’m not complaining.  That’s good.  Better than the alternative.  But is this a deep movie that really talks about gender issues?  Not really.  Is it a 2 hour over-adrenalized car chase? Yup. Did I stop caring at some point? Sure. 

Did I like Mad Max?  Why not?  It had some moments. I did love the fact that the soundtrack was so loud it oblterated much of the dialogue.  I once saw Cliffhanger in Italy without subtitles.  I loved it.  Had I heard the actual dialogue, I'm sure I would have been horrified.  Did I like Tom Hardy grunting his way through the script? I did.  It reminded me of Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner.  Hardy is no Spall, but I like movies with lots of grunting.  

Mad Max was fun.  But it was no Snowpiercer, which I might argue operates in the same pedal-to-the-metal vein. For that matter, last night I watched the Rifftrax take on Sharknado, and that got much more of a rise out of me than Fury Road.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard. Believe the Hype?

No question that the Karl Ove Knausgaard hype is in full effect.  The Norwegian memoirist is everywhere from guest writing spots in The New Yorker to the lecture circuit.  For those not in the know, Knausgaard has penned a massive memoir called, of all things, My Struggle.  It’s a six volume odyssey, each volume clocking in around 600 pages.  I just finished Book 2 and, if I’m honest, 1200 pages in, I’m still not sure what I think.  In fact, after Book 1, I decided that I wasn’t going to commit to the full monty.  But a couple stellar reviews by friends, and coming across it on the library shelves (shocked that it wasn’t checked out), I decided to give Book 2 a go.

My struggle with Knausgaard is this - On the one hand, he’s an excellent writer.  His prose has flow. He’s easy to read.  He continually gives great insights into the little moments of life, all the while struggling over larger philosophical conundrums.  

On the other hand, the narrative structure of these books is all over the map.  There isn’t a conventional narrative thru line.  There are thematic thru lines, but if you’re looking to sink into and be pulled along by a swiftly rushing narrative current, Knausgaard will frustrate.

Book 2 is all about parenting. Knausgaard struggles with the perception of himself as a stay-at-home father.  He struggles with his wife as they deal with parenting challenges.  Though he dives head long into parenting, it cuts against the life he wants to lead as an artist. This dichotomy is at the heart of Book 2.  He has to fight to carve out a space that allows him to write.  As I read Book 2, it vividly brought back many of the challenges and triumphs of raising young children. 

But the narrative is loose.  The book opens at a kid’s birthday party.  We’re at that party for a good 80 pages, and suddenly we slide into ruminations on Kanusgaard’s own childhood, and suddenly we careen into his first meeting with his wife, and all of a sudden we’re finding about his leaving Norway to come to Sweden.  Some of these narrative excursions are 10 pages, some 50 pages.  You never know how long of a ride you’re in for.  You never know if a thread will come back. 

For all the great writing, and there is plenty, sometimes the book is hard to pick up without that solid narrative thread to pull you in.

Will I read Book 3? It might be a game time decision.