Monday, January 15, 2007

Books! One Big Damn Puzzler!

As some of you may already know, our esteemed colleague The Mama Chan (proud mother of that oddest and most adorable feline, The Baby Chan) reads, well, pretty much everything. People see - indeed, people are given no choice but to see - her outsized public persona, but what people don't see are the endless hours she devotes in solitude (well, there's the Baby Chan, smiling up at her and bumping into furniture) to the high holy act of reading.

The Mama Chan recently cornered us here in the palatial confines of Stevereads and gently persuaded us (translation: shrilly shrieked "NO! Nonononono, you need to READ this, y'heathen!") to examine a forthcoming new novel.

The Mama Chan views recommending books as a sacred calling, an act of deep personal significance - and so, when she passes on a plug, it's not to be taken lightly.

More often than not, she hits the mark - and this is one of those times. Oh, this is certainly one of those times.

For weeks (The Mama Chan gets word of these things long before normal mortals), she's been urging upon us a forthcoming novel by John Harding called 'One Big Damn Puzzler,' saying cryptic things like 'it's just your sort of thing,'

We're not exactly sure how it's our 'sort of thing,' except in the sense that it's EVERYBODY's sort of thing, because this is one very, very good novel - intelligent, wise, agile, and funny.

The plot revolves around a South Pacific island so remote and undeveloped that the reader quickly suspects it of being paradise. Its inhabitants are quirky enough to make the reader cringe at the thought of condescension, and the author's elaborate use of pidgin English only increases the worry - but needlessly. Harding has his story firmly in hand, and its lynchpin is the pidgin-fallibility of everybody, whether they trade in yen or yams.

The moral authority on this island is an old man named Managua, who is engaged in the task of rendering 'Hamlet' into the pidgin English of his people. Harding's clearly fonder of him than of any of his other characters, and his gentle rendition of Managua's fairly high estimation of his own literary (and later acting) ability is the book's most charming aspect.

It's also the source of the novel's title, for Managua's sincere efforts to render Hamlet's most famous soliloquy come out thus: "Is be or is be not, is be one damn big puzzler."

Harding makes it clear from the outset that the elements of 'Hamlet' will interweave heavily through this book - and this is certainly true, in ways both silly and serious. Not only is there an abudance of ghosts and fatal indecisions (and at least one heartfelt love gone wrong), but there's some well-chosen ribbing sent Shakespeare's way: Managua's copy of 'Hamlet' is missing a few pages, and he naively assumes that those pages must contain the key to understanding the contradictions of this supremely contradictory play.

Into this quirky, idyllic world comes young, beautiful William Hardt, an American lawyer with grand claims of financial reparations for the islanders.

Fans of 'Northern Exposure' will be able to guess what happens next (we can just hear The Mama Chan braying 'What? What's that? Northern what? What are you talking about? Tell me, TELL ME! I'm talking to you, do you hear me, y'heathen?' The Mama Chan neither owns a TV nor knows how to operate her lonely, neglected computer). Hardt - afflicted with OCD - is overcome and borne aloft by the simple ways of this honest island (and by the allures of the predictable visiting white woman).

At its heart, Harding's book is about the inherent, unavoidable violence involved when any culture first meets another.

Complications ensue, and a wonderful novel unfolds. The book is plot-heavy (in the sense that it HAS one, unlike so much contemporary fiction) and totally free of authorial filigree (it's scarcely possible for a neutral reader to credit that Harding and, for instance, Jonathan Franzen are native writers of the same language), and we suspect these things were on The Mama Chan's mind when she described it as our 'kind of thing.' This is a meat-and-potatoes foursquare novel of the type you could hand to any intelligent reader, confident that they would like it.

We here at Stevereads have a sweet-tooth for ghost scenes, we admit it. Unlike perhaps the rest of you young people, we find ourselves utterly arrested by old King Hamlet's scenes in 'Hamlet,' and we find tears starting in our eyes during Mrs Landingham's appearance in 'The Two Cathedrals' (and don't even get us STARTED on the harrowing reunion scene from 'Truly, Madly, Deeply'). So of course we approved of the two pivotal ghost scenes in 'One Big Damn Puzzler,' especially the one between Hardt and his father (it goes a lot better than Hamlet's chats with his own dad). In less confident hands, this element could easily go awry, but Harding knows what he's doing.

Not that the book is without flaws. Hardt's OCD, for instance, feels tacked on, more the product of the author's momentary interest than an integral part of the plot. And this goes double for Harding's shoe-horning in 9/11 - it's possible that he may be the first author to treat that event lightly (the chaos forces Hardt to take a later flight) - or worse: "The President of the United States called the terrorists cowards. William couldn't agree. You could call the attacks underhand, targeting defenceless civilians without warning, but how could an attack in which you were definitely going to perish be cowardly? Sneaky, yes. Insane, mistaken, inhumane, yes, yes, yes, but lacking in courage, no."

But this are comparatively minor marks when set against the whole book, which is something you should put on your list for 2007. Really good, upretentious novels come along seldom enough, after all; it would be a shame to miss one.

And, of course, reading 'One Big Damn Puzzler' will keep you on the good side of The Mama Chan. Which is always a good thing.


Hippolyta said...

Thank you for the reprieve from comic book reviews!

Sam Sacks said...

A good, persuasive sell but:

What exactly do you mean by authorial filigree? Do you mean like omniscient exposition, when the writer sticks his head in and starts telling you about tangential stuff in an editorializing voice? (Like Franzen riffing in stylized fashion about corporate America or the make-up of the neighborhood of St. Jude or menus in trendy restaurants or whatver.) But surely you don't proscribe authorial filligree as a rule--basically every nineteenth century novel would be cast into the furnace.

And who doesn't like the ghost scene in "Hamlet"? It's intense and riveting and braced by the constant threat of danger and menace.

I'll add to the list of great ghost scenes that late scene in "Look Homeward, Angel," between Eugene and deceased Ben Gant. I think I remember that Ben actually insists he's NOT a ghost, but there's no other way to classify it; it's very very powerful.

Hellmo said...

A note to all of Steve's dawgz: he hasn't got the internet at the moment, so fire away! He can't defend himself.

steve d said...

Sam! When I mentioned 'authorial filigree,' I was mainly thinking about Franzen's ghastly, almost comically overwritten book 'The Corrections,' with its eye-wrenching pages-long hugely verbose descriptions of crowded tables, or sidewalk foliage, or any of a hundred other things that were described so lavishly ONLY so the author could showcase how 'serious' he was, how 'gifted' - the classic case of prose shedding much heat but little light. Show me a 19th Century novel that indulges in such excesses the way Franzen does - i.e. by DISPLAYING how irrelevant they are to his plot.

Actually, I think part of the reason Franzen does this (and he's not the only one, by a wide margin! Hell, it happens every third page in 'The Emperor's Children') is connected with a phenomenon I've been tracking for a couple of years now (and will certainly write down, once I've got a few more speed-traps laid!): a hugely prevalent and (in my opinion) mostly unconscious CONTEMPT for the very IDEA of a plot, a contempt I see simmering below the surface in the works of a good four dozen 'young' American and British novelists ...

... but I digress! I'd forgotten about 'Look Homeward, Angel'! Any other favorites?

Anonymous said...

Authorial contempt for the very idea of a plot, unconscious or otherwise, may yet produce a 'read' which, while very different from one of which Steve might approve, is nevertheless engaging, affecting, and worthwhile. But enough of that. Our host's critique of The Corrections could not be better put: the author seems less concerned with writing than with writerliness, and the book, as 'publishing events' go, was something of an anticlimax after the promising foreplay with Oprah.

None of this, however, is to denigrate Franzen's excellent first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, which even today identifies him as an author of great promise.


Kevin Caron said...

We now interrupt this comment thread for a special announcement:

Happy Birthday, Jeff E.!
Let's all raise our glasses of Hulk Juice and toast to the poster with the most!

We now return you to your regularly scheduled kvetching.

steve said...

AWWWW, Jeff turns 50! Again! Congrats!

Jeff E. said...

Hee. Thanks guys. Some people use Oil of Olay to stay forever 30; my little secret is Hulk juice to keep me forever 50.

Sam Sacks said...

Happy Birthday, Jeff!
And Steve...Bookrant? Did you think you could keep that deformed offspring hidden in the attic forever?

steve said...

ulp ... I'm sure I don't know what 'bookrant' is ...

Jeff E. said...

Isn't that your World of Warcraft screen name Steve?

Hippolyta said...

Steve! I just found bookrant! Come on now, this is what we all need more of...Tongue-lashings Steve style! That's exactly why I continue to eagerly await stevescreeds.

Jeff E. said...

Oh fun! A stevereads prototype!

Beepy said...

Wow! Steve has a dirty little secret. And it turns out to be....he can't do math! I love it when our blog-god messes up!

Kevin Caron said...

Hot-Link-Lad does it again! Way to go, Jeff!

steve said...

Curse you, Hot-Link Lad!