Sometimes gorgeous

Book cover for On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is written as a letter from Little Dog to his mother. The author, Ocean Vuong, is a celebrated poet, and his first novel is a fragmentary narrative that centers around Little Dog, now in his late twenties, coming to terms with who he is and how he was raised. The story hops around in time and space, sampling artfully from Little Dog’s memories as well as the lore passed down to him through his mother and grandmother.

The broader story underlying this narrative is an essential one. It’s about the human costs of inequity, about human hardship, trauma, and survival. Vuong looks unflinchingly at American society, including its racism, bullying, and widespread drug addiction. That said, despite much excellent writing, it somehow didn’t quite work for me as a novel. The disjointed nature of the narrative comes naturally in the context of someone writing a long letter about his memories. But Vuong announces both the novel’s aggressive rawness and forcefully digressive style early on as it diverts into a fairly detailed sequence about men eating a live monkey’s brain. The scene struck me as unnecessarily graphic at first. I came to understand that this vividness is part of the point. However, I felt that the novel missed out on a human element in its relentless pursuit of the ugly in order to make an almost academic conclusion about finding beauty in life’s experiences.

Vuong often dances around thoughts and characters rather than delving into them. There are many philosophical-sounding statements, but I thought a good number of them more vague than insightful. Just flipping through the pages for one right now, I find, “They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they can love it.” I wish Vuong had given us a better sense of the characters so that we could understand more through them and not have things summed up for us in these forced statements. I never really did get a sense, for example, of who Little Dog’s love interest was as a person; he seemed more of a movie type. That may have been intentional, to make him come across as a standoffish, remote person despite their intimacy, but I felt there was just a gap there.

At the end of part two, about two-thirds of the way through the book, Vuong breaks the prose apart and spools together many of the scenes and ideas at work into a powerful 8-page sequence in poetic form. While you might argue that this reflects his storytelling style in the novel as a whole, it made me wish that the rest of the novel had been told in a similar manner. By trying to wedge these instincts into the structure of a novel, however disjointed it is, Vuong missed out on conveying some of the life that I think he was trying to represent. The pacing and character development were slightly labored, and I kept feeling the book was stalling. I think it would have worked beautifully if it was more even experimental. Given the platform Vuong has from his poetry, perhaps he could have gotten away with this.

All in all, although I couldn’t really recommend this novel, I’d certainly be interested in future prose by Vuong–and I definitely intend to read more of his poetry.

These stories are out there

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cosmicomics is an immensely creative set of short stories by Italo Calvino. Although they’re not all fantastic, they’re all at least interesting and fun to read and think about.

Each story starts with some kind of scientific concept statement (e.g., the sun taking two hundred million years to make a complete rotation around the galaxy). The story then involves the narrator, Qfwfq, recounting an experience with the concept (e.g., trying to place signs so that others would know they were there). That example is from “A Sign in Space,” one of the standouts in the collection. “The Aquatic Uncle,” “The Dinosaurs,” and “The Light-Years” were my other favorites. These showed a wicked sense of humor and felt human and accessible. Some of the others were dry and a bit too plodding and cerebral for my tastes.

Calvino is certainly a unique writer. Whereas the surrealists examined the unconscious mind, these stories are fabulist; they’re just all over the place and will go anywhere. No doubt they’re very creative, but they can be jarring to read and inconsistent.

I absolutely loved Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I wouldn’t say these stories quite rise to that level, but they’re worth a read if you like experimental, somewhat challenging fiction.

A thoughtful novel about aging

Visitors book cover with woman alone at dresser

Visitors by Anita Brookner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dorothea seems an unlikely focus for a novel. Widowed fifteen years, she putters along from day to day, content–or so she’s convinced herself–to avoid any interactions beyond those prescribed by societal convention. The plot is simple and straightforward: when she’s asked by a relative of her late husband to host a young guest in her house for a family wedding, she agrees, and his very presence prompts her to reassess her daily existence.

Visitors is a pensive novel about family, aging, and expectation. Fireworks never ensue. Rather, Anita Brookner brings you along the slow gyrations of Thea’s every thought. We all know someone like Thea, I expect, and Brookner takes you inside her head with precision and delicacy.

The writing here is excellent, a descendant of the thoughtful, observant work of Virginia Woolf and Henry James. I found it doing just what a novel is supposed to do; it prompts you to think about your own life choices and challenge your own assumptions. It’s a beautiful novel about a somewhat sad life.

Such privileged boys

Such Fine Boys: A Novel by Patrick Modiano

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nobel price winner Patrick Modiano‘s Such Fine Boys: A Novel is essentially a series of sad reminiscences about privileged boys at a boarding school outside Paris and what became of them when they grew up. It’s dripping with melancholy, holding out little hope for these lonely, lost men. Modiano seems more concerned with mood than anything else and skims past these people and their experiences without much insight or involvement. I found myself feeling little sympathy for their plights or their lack of judgment.

The writing itself, at least in this translation, seemed stilted and labored. This approach has been used by other French authors, such as Albert Camus and Alain Robbe-Grillet, to great effect. With this material, however, the awkward detachment simply made the reading experience uninvolving. There was neither a central crisis nor a weighty intellectual idea to grip my attention and interest. Time passes, stuff happens–there’s no real insight in that. Maybe if you grew up in France in the 60’s and wanted to feel nostalgic, this would be a great book for you. Or if you were more familiar than I with the social and political turbulence of 60’s France; that’s mostly an ignored background here, unless that was the point–it’s hard to tell, the way it was written.

Some of these characters appear in other Modiano novels, including a young girl named Little Jewel who made for the most interesting vignette. I might try one of those in the future, but while I thought this was an okay read, I wouldn’t recommend it to the uninitiated.

A convoluted yarn

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Manhattan Beach is the second book I’ve read by Jennifer Egan, after A Visit from the Goon Squad. Having grown up in Manhattan Beach (the one in Brooklyn, not L.A.), I was curious about a novel named after it, but this has little to nothing to do with the actual location aside from a key early scene there.

At heart, this novel reads like a thriller or action story, and I was interested to find out what would happen, but for this kind of book it gets bogged down in an awful lot of descriptive detail. In its favor, it’s a very well researched book. The descriptions of the Brooklyn Naval Yard and learning to become a diver were remarkably vivid. Unfortunately, Egan doesn’t let you forget how much research she did, ever, and I often felt like I was reading a research report rather than a novel.

The characters seem to be created for the purposes of the story, too, and often struck me as unconvincing. Anna, the lead, is naturally a very sympathetic character because of her circumstances, but she acts in ways that sometimes seemed contrived to move the plot along. Other characters are straight from the stock collection: a mobster who’s really not that bad, a very misunderstood father, a Black man who harasses and intimidates a character but then saves his life, etc.

Egan writes some scenes beautifully–I wanted to mark my page to come back to them–but there are others that are just as notable for their wordy obtuseness. Ultimately, I found myself with the same reaction as I had for Egan’s Goon Squad book: impressed with the accomplishment, but not really liking it very much in the end.

Bertie and Jeeves in their first novel

First edition cover of The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I’m down or stressed, I often turn to P.G. Wodehouse‘s absurd tales of the idle rich for an escape from real life. The Inimitable Jeeves is the first “novel” with Jeeves. I put novel in quotes because this is really more of a series of short stories strung together than a proper novel. The contents were originally published separately as eleven short stories, some of which were split to form the book. The plot is clearly less sophisticated than some of his later comic novels. Still, it’s plenty of fun to breeze along and read about Bertie’s wasted life, as his Aunt Agatha properly calls it. He and his friends from the leisure class get themselves into trouble and are rescued time and again by the clever schemes of Bertie’s valet Jeeves. Most of the stories involve Bertie’s hopeless friend Bingo Little and his ever-changing infatuations with various women. If you want to check your worries at the door and read about utterly ridiculous people doing silly things, this is a great diversion.

The first Jeeves book

Plain text cover for My Man Jeeves

My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

My Man Jeeves is the first P.G. Wodehouse book with Bertie Wooster or his valet Jeeves in the title. Only half of these eight stories, however, feature Jeeves and Wooster. The other half are about Reggie Pepper, an early prototype for Bertie. Two of the Pepper stories were actually later rewritten as Jeeves stories.

It’s fascinating to read these stories together. The Pepper stories are very similar to the Jeeves ones, except without Jeeves there to come up with solutions. The addition of Jeeves makes the stories much more entertaining–he’s an iconic character.

These are all fun to read, though, even if too many are simply about idle young men panicking over losing the streams of money from their rich relatives. Overall, they read like somewhat earlier, undeveloped versions of Wodehouse’s later work. They’re a nice, quick diversion with some funny zingers, but not yet showing the comic brilliance of Wodehouse’s later work.

A lesser Greene novel

Book cover of Brighton Rock

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Graham Greene is one of my very favorite novelists. The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, The Power and the Glory, and many others of his are among both the most thoughtful and emotionally powerful novels I’ve ever read. Brighton Rock is an earlier book, released in 1938, and it shows. It concerns gangsters in a seaside resort in England and the fallout from a murder they’ve committed.

For about the first half, it all seemed somewhat ridiculous to me. Some of the characters almost blend into each other, drawn with none of the richness and depth found in later Greene novels. I was about to put the book down a couple of times, but I looked up reviews and found that many people seem to really love it, so I decided to keep going.

The book’s merits do build as it goes on. In the end, it becomes an examination of good and evil, of religious belief, and of human nature. The creative ending sequence was both jarring and thought provoking. You can see the seeds of brilliance that would blossom for his later novels. However, I’m not sure I could recommend this when there are so many wonderful Greene novels out there to be read. This is the tenth novel that I’ve read by him, and the one I enjoyed the least.