I raced to the finish of Dan Chaon’s Ill Will, finishing the whole 400-plus page novel in about four days. On Social Media, I said that Ill Will was just about the most desolate ostensibly commercial thriller I’ve ever read. I’m having a hard time coming up with other candidates. It begins with over a dozen murders left unsolved, spread over two cases, and is told from the point of view of a variety of characters who may or may not be but probably are mentally, or emotionally, ill, and almost all of whom have suffered terrible tragedies. Among the tragedies is the death of the protagonist’s wife from cancer, which, as I said a couple of posts ago, is something Chaon himself has endured. Ill Will is not hopeful, it’s not about overcoming anything; if anything, it’s about succumbing after a life of torment. As Dustin Tillman, the protagonist who suffered abuse at the hands of his adopted older brother, whose parents were murdered when he was a child, and who watched his wife wither away, asks of himself, and others out there who may suffer as he has, “Do you ever think somebody up there doesn’t like you?” These emotions all unfold and expand and blacken alongside a thrilling plot.
Earlier this week I was listening to a podcast (which I realize now was my first mistake) in which the guest explained what he believed was the difference between an artist and an entertainer (my second mistake was to not stop listening right there): entertainers want their work to be seen by others, whereas artists, who create only for themselves, are content with shoving their completed work into a drawer somewhere. Apart from dismissing all of the performing arts as “entertainment,” this theory also, among many other head-slappingly dumb things, assumes that anyone writing fiction with the hopes of reaching a large audience (not necessarily with the goal of doing this; there’s a difference) is only an entertainer (in fairness, the person saying all this dumb shit considered himself to be an entertainer). Which, further, means that with Ill Will, a novel that has done quite well, Dan Chaon believed he was deliberately constructing mass entertainment, the kind of suspense novel everyone can enjoy. The fact is, Ill Will is a terrific contemporary example of what genre fiction is capable of, the emotional and aesthetic impact it can have, and that not all bestsellers are cut from the same cheap cloth.
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This week I also finished Voices in the Night, Steven Millhauser’s most collection of Millhauserian short fiction. I’d been reading it off and on for a while, and on Wednesday I pushed through to the end, starting with the last half of the book’s longest story, “The Pleasures and Suffering of Young Guatama” (the longest story here, and one I found to be a bit of a grind, but ultimately worth it), “American Tall Tale,” in which Millhauser says “Fuck it, I’m going to write my own Paul Bunyan story, “Home Run,” which is a few pages long, all one sentence, about a particularly impressive home run, and “The Voice in the Night,” a story that reads as a kind of fictional memoir centered around Millhauser’s atheism, what he thinks about it, his perhaps occasional struggle with it, and ultimate celebration of it. These stories make up a strong last third of a book, but the first two thirds ain’t no slouch, neither.
For years I’ve considered Millhauser to be one of my favorite writers, ever since I read his masterful first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, God knows how many years ago at this point, but until committing to Voices in the Night it had been several years since I’d read anything by him. The stories in this book confirmed that I have great taste. And while there’s not a loser in the bunch, of particular interest to me was the story “A Report on Our Recent Troubles.” The first story by Thomas Ligotti I ever read was “The Red Tower,” and as I read it I remember thinking “This is as if Steven Millhauser had written a horror story.” Well, “A Report on Our Recent Troubles” feels like Millhauser writing not just a horror story, but specifically a Thomas Ligotti story. The title even has the ring of a Ligotti title. It’s good stuff.
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Also finished this week was The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard. It’s my twenty-first Leonard novel, and his first ever crime novel, written amid the few Westerns he was still cranking out as that market died. It was published in 1969 and holy shit, does it feel timeless. That this thing is almost fifty years old is almost unthinkable. I’m on record as being a Leonard fan, but not a die-hard fan, and I’ve taken issue with any number of his books, or at least chunks of them, but The Big Bounce seems almost perfect. The dialogue was already there (of course, I say “already” but he was in his 40s when this was written), but more pure, free of the tics that sometimes marred his later books; the scenes that other crime writers would leave out but which Leonard was celebrated for are here written with such ease that I could almost forget I was reading a crime novel. Interestingly, The Big Bounce is also one of Leonard’s more traditional noir stories, being, as it is, part of the femme fatale subgenre – a particularly Leonard-esque entry into that subgenre, but still.
Also of note: the character Mr. Majestyk, who not too long after The Big Bounce would star in his own eponymous novel and film, first appears here, in a major supporting role. What I find funny is that while in Mr. Majestyk the character is a guy who has to do some killing and does it, in The Big Bounce he’s just a kind, practical, smart businessman and Justice of the Peace. He’s not in on the action at all, but Leonard still decided to name the character “Mr. Majestyk.” Plus at one point, Majestyk is watching a Western on TV, and as described, the movie sounds an awful lot like The Tall T, the great Budd Boetticher film that’s based on an old Elmore Leonard short story. What this implies about the Elmore Leonard EU is too much for me to wrestle with right now.
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Not finished this week, but continued, is Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest, about the childhood of Adolf Hitler as told by the demon from Hell who got that particular ball rolling, and which would turn out to be his final novel. I’m reading this now because I had intended, or hoped, that it would be part of a reading, and subsequently writing, project involving fiction about Hitler, but I’m starting to think this thing is dead in the water. The problem is my enthusiasm, once robust, has shriveled like an airless balloon. At fault are the first novel I read, Young Adolf by the great Beryl Bainbridge. Or mostly great. That novel is about Hitler in his early 20s, visiting, or imposing himself upon, or invading, family in England. Put forward by some critics as a black comedy, I didn’t find a lot of humor in the book (though Bainbridge’s style of humor tends to be dry as salt), but worse, I couldn’t figure out what was going on in Bainbridge’s head. Now, I hate it when someone complains that a work of art “had no point” – indeed, if I had my way this would be a criminal offense – but I think we can all agree that Hitler as a historical figure looms sufficiently over humanity as it currently exists the world over that if one is going to use him as a fictional character, the reader should be able to understand why this choice was made. And as this all relates to Young Adolf, I was unable to do that. This is maybe my fault, I don’t know. I do know that Bainbridge ends Young Adolf with some bad irony, so even if it turns out that on that first point I am a dumbshit, the second bit is on her.
Anyway, so you add that to how I’m feeling about 200 pages into The Castle in the Forest, and I’m no longer sure this project has legs. I’m going to finish Mailer’s book, though, if for no other reason than after Some Came Running every book seems short. But it’s also a fascinating book, in its own way. If I was unable to figure out what Bainbridge was thinking when she wrote Young Adolf, that hasn’t been a problem so far with The Castle in the Forest. Mailer’s brain is splattered all over every page. His fixations and weirdness and foolishness and childishness are the book – fuck Hitler, he barely enters into it. Well, his anus does. But someone’s anus has featured prominently in each of the three Mailer novels I’ve, I don’t know, experienced. Then again, if the first part of The Castle in the Forest was about anuses, the second part has been about bees. My hopes are high that the third part will be about cardamom. Where this alphabetical journey will go from there, who can say?