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Pornografia by Witold Gombrowicz

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Set in war-torn, German-occupied Poland during World War II, Pornografia is a key text of late modernism — and this is the first edition that is a translation into English from Gombrowicz’s Polish. (The previous edition came into English from a French translation.)

Witold Gombrowicz is a novelist of psychological entanglements, and Pornografia is a novel of erotic entanglement. It is often cruel and sometimes cruelly funny. It is a novel by a man certain that language in some profound way determines ontology, that what we hear and say sculpts the way we are.

Set in a country idyll with the war roaring dully in the background, two refugee intellectuals conspire to contrive a liaison between a pair of kids who have grown up together there in the Polish countryside. Pornografia is an unholy little novel, chillingly dark, at times dripping with cynicism, but at its best beset by bracing, high-brow hilarity and jaded, deeply sublimated hysteria. First published in 1966, it’s only recently that readers have begun to talk about Gombrowicz as a Latin American writer rather than a Polish one. The question of influence is good, if ultimately divisive. Division is precisely Gombrowicz’s strength; you imagine he not only enjoys taking the frog apart with a tiny knife, he begins to split the world apart as if it were empirically just an intimately interbleeding network of heartbeats. Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by Brian

February 19th, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Gain by Richard Powers

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Gain, Richard Power’s amazing sixth novel (originally published in 1998), takes one of the most difficult issues of our time and humanizes it. The issue is corporate culpability. We all know that “better living through chemistry” has its price and its consequences, but who is to pay?

Not Clare, the transnational corporation whose history is charted across three generations in this saga of a novel. The company makes soap — a cleaning product that offers the homemaker so much to gain. And the company, of course, has gained, prodigiously, over the years: it has profited immensely.

Clare manufacturers its products in Lacewood, Illinois, where Laura Bodey is an estate agent. Laura has ovarian cancer. Her story – of her illness and how, as she disintegrates, her family reunites around her – is intertwined with the story of Clare International.

Long before the novel makes the facts plain, we’ve already drawn connections: our chemistry is killing us. The brilliant Powers draws parallels and cycles in abundance but, to his credit, he never once hits over the head with any moralizing message.

Perennial plants flower and die, and so do people and industries, he implies. It’s the way of the world. We can change things, perhaps and, after reading Gain, we may well join one crusade or another, seeking justice for victims of industries focused on nothing but gain or, contrarily, seeking to eliminate the tort system that is, at this point, the victim’s only source of recompense and punishment for the polluters who make us sick. Either way, or no way, that’ll be what you got out of the novel, not what’s there. Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by Brian

February 11th, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Generosity by Richard Powers

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Richard Powers is a master of sleight-of-hand. He writes novels full of science but escapes being called a science fiction writer. In Generosity: An Enhancement, the latest novel by the MacArthur “genius” grant and National Book Award winner (for The Echo Maker), Powers feints and flourishes in order to — presto-magico — pull together two seemingly unrelated themes: genetic engineering and creative nonfiction.

In Powers’ hands, the relation between the two themes is laid bare: they both are concerned with the nature, manipulation, and enhancement of reality. In recent years, we’ve seen the formerly innocuous genre of memoir mutate into the high-stakes blockbuster industry of creative nonfiction. And woe unto he who fudges the truth in his memoir, who tells a lie, however small. What used to be par for the course in memoir is now a cardinal sin: remember James Frey and A Million Little Pieces? Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by Brian

January 21st, 2010 at 11:13 am

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

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One-time cyberpunk Kadrey (Metrophage) has traded in his old religion and the metaphysics of the digital realm for a new and ancient one, the demonic folk tale. Sandman Slim is like a noir bunch of episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a smart-mouth, street-smart leading man in place of the buxom teen – non-sensical, unbelievable, and one helluva good time.

James Stark, AKA Sandman Slim, the only human to survive Hell – much less live to tell the tale and eek out revenge for his tribulations – has come through the Darkness with special powers. He always was good at magic – not the hokey legerdemain that passes for entertainment among those with too much time on their hands – and that landed him with a bad crowd. Now he’s amped up with secrets from The Man (if man the devil be) himself. Ice-picked Trotsky’s friends were true-blue compared to Stark’s comrades. And power struggles among the demon-allied take on epic proportions. Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by Brian

November 9th, 2009 at 9:57 pm

Posted in fiction, reviews

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