Saturday, November 24, 2012

3 For 2013

As we wind up 2012 here, I've started looking beyond the Mayan doomsday & reading books that will be published in early 2013 - a perk of the bookselling gig, but also, if the world ends in December, at least I'll be well-read & caught up. Here are three early favorites for you that involve repeated face-punching, faking your own death, and apathetic vampires. So, maybe I'm not looking so far past that doomsday after all...

Donnybrook by Frank Bill (FSG, March 2013)
Frank is also the author of Crimes in Southern Indiana - a Catapult Notable Book from last year - a collection of intense, violent short stories about the stinking, meth-lovin' underbelly of America. In last year's review, I called him "the real deal, a stone-cold badass writer with more skill & chops than you know what to do with." I'm sticking to that assessment after reading Donnybrook, believe me. Frank scares me a little. Actually, I don't think that there is a character in Donnybrook that wouldn't make me pee a little if I met them in a dark alley. Even the pretty girls will break you in half or blow your face off with a .45. So the Donnybrook is an annual, 3-day bare-knuckle fighting tournament held on a 1000-acre compound owned by a madman in the middle of nowhere, Indiana. The $100,000 payout for the last man standing is enough to tempt every manner of scumbag deviant and half-wit for hundreds of miles around. Some come for the cash, some for revenge, and some for the fame, such as it is. All narrative strands are heading in the same face-punching direction, unfolding like a brisk, violent Guy Ritchie script on a serious dose of crank. Frank's prose races through your veins like, well, like I would imagine a significant meth-rush would. Yeeeaaaaaaaaaa!!! Hillbilly-noir, some call it. All I know is it's a rockin' good time.

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie, Jr. (Viking, February 2013)
Currie is the author of Everything Matters! - the #1 Catapult Notable Book from 2009 and a long-standing favorite of mine. This new book's right in my fiction-reading wheelhouse - blurring the lines between what is truth and fiction like no other recent book I can think of. And man, is this a difficult book to wrap your head around enough to tell your friends about. It's not really an autobiographical novel, but... it kind of is, at least in part. The protagonist is named "Ron Currie" and has significant echoes of Ron himself, yet is wholly different in his actual life arc... up to a certain point. Sort of a multiverse Ron Currie. Character Ron is an author who has written a modestly successful novel, has a fractured relationship with the love of his life (Emma), and ends up retreating to a Caribbean island to write his next book. (All things that happened to the real Ron Currie, more or less.) While he's down in the Caribbean essentially drinking himself to death, he has a failed attempt at reconciliation with Emma and ends up driving his Jeep off of a pier one night. As he drifts semi-conscious to an isolated beach, he goes missing just long enough for the local authorities to declare him dead and when he returns, he decides to write a post-fake-suicide suicide note and leaves the country. This death-fakery ultimately creates more problems than he anticipated, as his suicide note and unfinished book - about his relationship with Emma - get discovered and published to great acclaim. He becomes a cult hero in his fake death, which leaves a far wider wake of emotional destruction than he thought his actual death ever would. There's a very clever, head-splitting structure to this - that blurring of fact and fiction - that pushes the reader to abandon the confines of genre, in a way. The real Ron Currie didn't fake his own death and disappear for years in the Arabian desert, but you're constantly wondering where the fictional Ron ends and the real one begins. Should either Currie be held responsible for the emotional response of his readers if what he wrote was just a "fictional representation" of his experiences? The following excerpt - (character) Ron's public explanation after his death is revealed to be a fraud - fairly sums up the crux of this pretty brilliant, button-pushing novel. (This quote is from the ARC, so it may appear differently in the final version):

So what I'm wondering is, why should the story suddenly mean any less to you just because it isn't factual? It's a ridiculous distinction to begin with. Consider the popular cliché "there are two sides to every story." Perception is singular and faulty and unreliable. I will remember today's events differently than you will. We could both write down our impressions of this hearing, and it's more than likely that our accounts will differ. Does this mean that either of us is lying? Of course not. But if neither of us is lying, then neither of us is telling the truth, either. We're incapable of it. We are not reportage machines. We're perception machines.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (Knopf, February 2013)
Yet another followup from a former Catapult Notable author - Russell's Swamplandia! was on last year's list, among earning various other, more substantial accolades. This is another collection of her brilliantly written short stories (see also St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves from 2006) that are pretty much all weird, creepy, and fantastical. The title story is about... aging vampires who live in a lemon grove in Italy, what else? Clyde and Magreb are an old married couple who've been together for over a century - where do you go from there? Clyde doesn't like to turn into a bat and fly around anymore - Magreb does. So, it's really about this marriage that has hit a colossal rough patch. Brilliant. Other gems: a vaguely nightmarish Japanese factory where women are literally turned into silkworms in order to produce silk for the Empire; President Rutherford B. Hayes awakes to find himself reborn in the body of a horse, living in a stable populated by other former US presidents in the same predicament; and the hilarious, ridiculous Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating. Go Team Krill!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Conversation with David Mitchell, Part 1

So... you no doubt know of my (borderline psychotic) affinity for the written works of David Mitchell. Don't worry, we won't rehash here, I'm just getting that out there. (Fair warning.) And you probably know all about The Book Catapult's recent screening of the Cloud Atlas film at the Village Theatre in Coronado on November 3rd. Oh the times we had! When Scott and I were "brainstorming" about how to create some sort of literary happening around the release of that film, our illustrious friend, Wade Lucas of Random House, threw out the idea (joke?) of either having Mitchell join us at the theater or, at the very least, having him Skype with us as part of the event. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Wade, you so crazy! Well, one thing lead to another and I actually had the chance to meet in person with David for a few hours (over some iced teas and a La-La Salad, whatever that is) to pitch him the idea when he was in Los Angeles on a pre-film "press junket." Being the insanely polite British gentleman that he is, David was totally down with our idea and happy to play along. While he couldn't be at our screening in person, since he lives 5174 miles (yes, I looked it up) and 8 time zones away from San Diego, he did Skype with Scott and I for 45 minutes one morning. No, that was not just a dream I had.

This here video is the first part - and undeniable evidence! - of our conversation with David Mitchell - and essentially the same segment that we showed as part of the November 3rd screening. Check back in the coming weeks for more segments from our conversation - Scott is working tirelessly on editing things down for human consumption. Enjoy.

A thousand-thousand thanks to David Mitchell for, well, making any of this possible. Forever in your debt, we are, good sir.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Woes of the True Policeman

by Scott Ehrig-Burgess, Assistant Catapult Operator
It occurs to me that reading a Roberto Bolaño novel is like having a dream that you’re reading a Roberto Bolaño novel, having just nodded off with a Roberto Bolaño novel in your hand. Every word is perfect and familiar, yet slightly askew. You suspect, or at the very least are haunted by the suspicion, that you’ve read this particular Roberto Bolaño novel before, that inside the dream you’re re-reading a Roberto Bolaño novel you’ve already read. But just when you’ve gotten close enough to the text to clearly make out the words, the dream abruptly changes and the novel is something different entirely. A novel you haven’t read. And only by putting it down again will it become familiar.

Reading his latest, Woes of The True Policeman, this impression is even stronger than usual as the novel could very effectively pass as a collection of outtakes from the novel 2666, since its main characters feature prominently in that novel, which, like this one, lay unfinished and scattered at the time of his death, but largely complete and aesthetically intact. In fact, unlike most dead authors, if anything, publishing Bolaño’s incomplete fragments seem more in keeping with the spirit of his work. There is no fear a hired gun will ever be brought in to ‘finish’ any of his remaining manuscripts, if there are any unpublished after this, for none of his ten previously published novels, in various states, are actually ‘complete’ or ‘finished’ in the conventional sense. In a way they are fragments of themselves and some great sprawling work Bolaño was never given the life to complete. In fact, it is more than likely the novels change each time you put them down and pick them up again. And so it can be said that Woes of The True Policeman is a bit like a series of deleted scenes from 2666, except that it isn’t, and you can easily convince yourself that these are the characters you’ve encountered before, except that they aren’t.

Admittedly, I’m only a Bolaño tourist, having read the first 150 pages of The Savage Detectives, twice, stopping at roughly the same passage both times for completely different reasons, and of course 2666, the novel every serious bookseller who thought themselves of impeccable, impenetrably erudite taste, read or claimed to read in the year 2008 and, for good measure, mostly in order to avoid appearing a Bolaño tourist, I quickly read Nazi Literature in the Americas, which is a book length compendium of imaginary writers, their imaginary biographies and imaginary summaries of their imaginary works. Unless, as I imagine the reader is meant to imagine, every imaginary writer is a cleverly disguised real-life writer and their listed works some sort of coded critique of not-so-imaginary-imaginary novels that somewhere, in some time and place actually exist. Or as Borges once said, “The final discovery that two characters in the plot are the same person may be appealing - as long as the instrument of change turns out to be not a false beard or an Italian accent, but different names & circumstances.”

Woes of the True Policeman, then. Reading the thing, I was going to suggest that if you hadn’t read 2666 you were really wasting your time, as this book sort of sprouted out of that book like a third eye or an unwanted tail. Having finished the book, I’m not sure that’s true, for it isn’t so much an extension of 2666 as it is a fragment of a dream of that novel. It is one of several of Bolaño’s universes in which 2666 still exists, but slightly askew. The central narrative of Woes of the Third Policeman is that of a Chilean university professor named Amalfitano, exiled with his teen daughter Rosa in Bolaño’s Santa Teresa, after being forced out of his teaching position in Barcelona when a relationship with a young gay student is exposed. Throughout the novel he and the student exchange letters, Amalfitano’s back story is told, and a police officer clandestinely follows him around, though that thread is never fully explored, whether because the novel is incomplete, which it was a the time of his death, or because the novel is by Roberto Bolaño, which it also is, or was, at the time of his death, I do not know. Oh, and of course there is a thirty page section about the novelist Archimboldi, which, since this is a Bolaño novel, contains detailed plot summaries of many of the imaginary Archimboldi’s imaginary works. I’m confident that Bolaño’s oeuvre of unwritten imaginary novels written by imaginary writers exceeds in number and quantity even the most detailed of Borges’ many labyrinthine libraries full of imaginary books.

Readers of 2666 will recognize at once Amalfitano, Rosa, the city of Santa Teresa, and the novelist Archimboldi. Except of course, like the novel in the dream, the closer one peers, the more displaced things become. Amalfitano is no longer a literature professor who spends a lot of time staring out in the backyard, but is a poetry professor with an inclination for young poets and art forgers (though in both he translates one of Archimboldi’s novels), and the novelist Archimboldi isn’t the Benno Von Archimboldi that the diabolical perpetual motion machine that is 2666 revolves around, but JMG Archimboldi, who is and isn’t the same writer at all. Naturally, if one consults the complete works of both Archimboldis, which Bolaño graciously provides, they are completely different, completely, except for the novel Railroad Perfection (imaginary), which is attributed as being written by both men, depending on which book one is reading and is mentioned, yet again, as being written by JMG Archimboldi in The Savage Detectives. Seems reasonable. Seth and I have talked a lot about the David Mitchell ‘Multiverse’, in which characters appear across the spectrum of his novels, but this, I suppose, is the Roberto Bolaño ‘Quantum Multiverse’ in which all possible universes live together in a frenetic sort of madman’s dissonant harmony. Or maybe that should be harmonic dissonance. And it isn’t just the characters themselves that shift and reshape, but the anecdotes and digressions as well. Several from 2666, particularly the history of several generations of women with the same name who are all victims of the same crime, and a linguistic pun from World War Two that conflates the word ‘Art’ and ‘Cunt’, thus saving a man from execution, appear in Woes of the True Policeman as if they were photographs taken from a different perspective to their original poses and thus jarringly familiar yet alien and new.

Dead and Loving It
Why then, if I can’t say anything coherent about Roberto Bolaño, should you read Woes of the True Policeman, or anything else by him? The same reason one reads any iconoclastic genius: The experience is exhilarating, maddening, poetic, and cannot be replicated by reading the work of someone else. To tourists like us many things are lost. I’m sure I miss the intricate connections to his other works, I know that my knowledge of Mexican poets beyond Octavio Paz - don’t let Bolaño get started on Paz - lack of knowledge, I should say, is a significant hurdle to understand much of what goes on in the pages of The Savage Detectives I haven’t gotten past, but, also like tourists, I can certainly appreciate the landmarks and the natural beauty of passages like this from Woes of the True Policeman:
“They learned that a book was a labyrinth and a desert. That there was nothing more important than ceaseless reading and traveling, perhaps one and the same thing. That when books were read, writers were released from the souls of stones, which is where they went to live after they died, and they moved into the souls of readers as if into a soft prison cell, a cell that later swelled or burst. That all writing systems are frauds. That true poetry resides between the abyss and misfortune and that the grand highway of selfless acts, of the elegance of eyes and the fate of Macrabru, passes near its abode. That the main lesson of literature was courage, a rare courage like a stone well in the middle of a lake district, like a whirlwind and a mirror. That reading wasn’t more comfortable than writing. That by reading one learned to question and remember.”
Macrabru, incidentally, according to Wikipedia, “Is one of the earliest troubadours whose poems are known” and certainly points to both the iceberg lurking beneath every Bolaño novel and the utility of Google to the modern reader. Only Bolaño can pull off Bolaño, and for that both his admirers and his detractors are eternally grateful.  Looks like I'll have to restart The Savage Detectives yet again.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Infinite Thanks

We here at the Book Catapult would just like to thank everyone who was involved with our Cloud Atlas screening on Saturday night - especially all of you folks and readers of this site who turned out in droves (96 of you!) to support us - from everyone who bought a ticket from the Catapult or just wandered up to the box office and stuck around after they found out Argo was sold out.

Thank you for reaffirming our belief that true literary culture is alive and well here in San Diego!

The Village Theatre starts to fill in...

Special thanks to:

Frankie and Co. at the fabulous Village Theatre

You wanna know the true-true?
Wade Lucas from Random House
Angela Carone from KPBS
Kelly Davis from San Diego CityBeat
The wonderful people at Bay Books
Joe Porteous, photographer

Jennifer Powell
Kristi Ehrig-Burgess

And, of course, the man of the hour, David Mitchell.

Thanks, everybody.

Seth and Scott