Book Reviews


The Marx Family Saga

The Marx Family Saga by Juan Goytisolo, translated by Peter Bush City Lights Books, $10.95 paper

by Juan Goytisolo,
translated by Peter Bush

City Lights Books, $10.95 paper

At this late point in the century, the most fresh and wrenching images left by the Communist world are those of a great dismantling and collapse. Colossal statues toppling toward the ground. Empty shelves once stacked with loaves of bread. The intention of Juan Goytisolo's somewhat experimental short novel The Marx Family Saga seems to be an exploration of both the human emotion and theory behind this doomed revolution that would have swept the world (though the two are often inseparable when considering Marx). With Goytisolo, though, such a plainly stated thesis is provisional at best, and perhaps that's for the better -- by losing himself in a deceptively uncontrolled, extremely self-conscious, and self-referential style of writing that is only sometimes about Karl Marx, the author makes some terribly potent points about the failures of both idealism and art. In fact, the great feat of this book is that it is clever enough to demonstrate that politics and art, or Marx and Goytisolo for that matter, are often rather the same.

The novel begins with a crash as a boat full of Albanian refugees accidentally comes ashore on a posh Italian beachfront. The strange dissonance that rises from their meeting serves as a tonal place-setting for the conflict that Goytisolo uses throughout the rest of the work: Here we see the downtrodden stumbling face-to-face against the privileged and aloof. In a fast stream-of-consciousness flow of tropes, the author deftly breezes from this clash into arguments for and against the worldwide hypnosis that led to the ambitious dream of Communism. Yes, four-fifths of the world lived in dire poverty as Marx dreamed up his theory. And yes, Marx was hopeless in distinguishing ideals from reality. Though Goytisolo takes Marx directly to task for wasting several generations of human lives, he is even more convincing in painting a personal picture of Karl and his family that makes the reader root against the rest of the world instead.

Somewhere near the middle of the book, though, Goytisolo makes the sharpest of turns without any warning, and The Marx Family Saga becomes a book about the writing of this very book. All very meta indeed. Goytisolo quarrels with his publisher Mr. Faulkner, who wants a more romantic novel about the family life of the Marxes, something with fewer philosophical and theoretical dissections. He is lambasted by a feminist Marxologist on a televised panel discussion of the great thinker. In short, he doubts and he fails. What easily could have become an exercise in self-indulgence, though, brilliantly becomes a punchy reflection of the same self-revelry and false martyrdom of the Karl Marx so fully explored in his work. The author seems to assume the stance of the great thinker with ease, and for that accomplishment alone, The Marx Family Saga is able to make a studied and trusted attempt at explaining how our polarized world arrived at the antipodes it inhabits today. -- David Garza


The Strangeness of Beauty: A Novel

The Strangeness of Beauty: A Novel by Lydia Minatoya Simon & Schuster, $23 hard

by Lydia Minatoya
Simon & Schuster, $23 hard

"Coming from the land of earthquakes, where insulation equals protection from breakage, the Japanese have made an art of extreme overpackaging." So says Etsuko Sone, heroine/narrator of The Strangeness of Beauty, a delicate, barely ripe peach of a book wrapped in multiple metaphoric layers of gauze, silk, and subtly patterned paper.

Lydia Minatoya's first book was the award-winning memoir Talking to High Monks in the Snow. So perhaps it is appropriate that this, her first novel, is written in the form of an "I-story," or autobiographical fiction, an amateur art form in Japan.

But Minatoya's is not a true I-story, of course; she is writing about a woman who is writing about her life. A postmodern I-story, then. For Minatoya's narrator pauses frequently to reflect, to double back, and to offer meta-commentary: not only on her story, but also on its telling, on how the telling touches her, and on the nature of the I-story itself. Amusingly, the book even pre-empts its own reviews ("I'm growing bored with my I-story. All reminiscence, no action. Critics say that's the trouble with I-stories. Action. There never seems to be any."). It's prose that contains its own algorithm, teaching you how to read it.

And every slip backward in time, every pause for self-critique, every moment of recursive self-analysis, is just one more layer of delicate packaging around the novel's core. In 1922, Etsuko is a young Japanese widow in Seattle caring for her dead sister's baby, Hanae. Soon the child's father sends them both back to Kobe to live with Etsuko's mother Chie -- a woman of an aristocratic samurai family who abandoned her in infancy. As the years wear on, these three women respond in their own ways to the burgeoning Japanese militarism that will lead to World War II.

The subtle interplay of mother-daughter themes is the glowing heart of this book. Both Hanae and Etsuko struggle with a sense of abandonment by their mothers, for example, while Chie and Etsuko each fight to understand daughters who are not truly theirs. Etsuko does meet other characters, and dutifully sketches their stories into her own. But these tend to be the weakest passages of the book, seeming plopped in, undigested, too pat.

The novel's title comes from the Japanese concept of myo, a word Etsuko defines with reference to amateur painters: "an idea that transcendence can be found in what's common and small." With the plain, shy, determined Etsuko and her I-story, Minatoya offers a tenderly packaged gift. Unwrapping it is a pleasure. -- Katherine Catmull


Layover: A Novel

Layover: A Novel by Lisa Zeidner Random House, $24 hard

by Lisa Zeidner
Random House, $24 hard

Claire Newbold, the protagonist of Lisa Zeidner's novel Layover, is 41, married to a cardiothoracic surgeon, and earns her pay as a traveling saleswoman of medical equipment. She has also, in the too-recent past, suffered the death of her infant son in an automobile accident. But that's not all. Her husband, enticing her into the back yard for their first sexual romp in months, chooses that moment to fill the postcoital air with a confession of recent infidelity. "Thanks for sharing," Claire responds, brandishing the sarcasm and wit she carries through the novel like a shield.

Then, one day, on a business trip in Pennsylvania, she misses a plane and decides not to return home. As she says, "I saw no need to be manacled to my past, weighed down by it, when I had so little left. ... By then I was a ghost in my own life anyway." If all this sounds depressing, it isn't.

A novel written in the first person lives or dies by the voice of its narrator, and in Claire, Zeidner has created a compelling, sometimes hilarious, and reckless woman-on-the-verge. Here are just a few of her observations: "Like a hairdresser with an atrocious haircut, he considered himself above his own ministrations," and, "Sex is a story you know the ending of. ... Yet we want to keep hearing it, the way a child listens to a fairy tale, vigilant for variation." On her extended, fugue-like trip, she begins sneaking her way into hotel rooms for a free stay, and the will-she-get-caught angle of the novel is enough to keep the reader glued. Then she meets and beds a lusty teenage pre-med student, dines with and berates his mother, and then later beds his father, all the while eluding anything related to her old life, and never, ever forgetting her dead son or her tenuous marriage. The beauty of the novel is that it doesn't pretend that redemption and happy endings are easily earned, or even completely possible. What Layover does depict is a woman trying in her own edge-of-madness way to figure out where her life will lead next. At times the characters speak too eloquently, with too much scripted wit and charm, and certain events later in the novel stretch credibility, but these are quibbles; this is a novel that shines with humor, wisdom, and poignancy.-- Martin Wilson



Life in Double Time: Confessions of an American Drummer

Life in Double Time: Confessions of an American Drummer by Mike Lankford Chronicle Books, $12.95 paper

by Mike Lankford
Chronicle Books, $12.95 paper

In this hilarious musical autobiography, Mike Lankford reports that he was born into a family of squares ("Around our house, Lawrence Welk was considered 'Mr. Party'") but at an early age was hypnotized by seeing a live band and walking to the side of the bandstand, where he had a close look at the drummer: "Melody ceased to exist for me that night. Everything in the songs seemed done for the sake of the drummer. Every verse, chorus, bridge and ending was written so the drummer could do something else remarkable. He seemed a combination conductor, lead instrument, chief source of inspiration and spark plug for the whole band."

The place is small-town southern Oklahoma and the settings the local high school and Teen Center, where there was no bigger deal than an appearance by a rock & roll band from Dallas. Lankford and his wannabe buddies studied every nuance: "If a band was coming a hundred and fifty miles from Dallas, it became known weeks ahead and the buzzing would begin. If possible, I would arrive ... early and begin analyzing the equipment. The presence of an extra drum or an amp that stood higher than two feet would convince me that I was about to experience genius."

Once embarked on his own path in local garage bands, Lankford describes the differences in playing with average guitar players and one who was really gifted. All of this is in the context of playing nothing but covers of late Sixties and early Seventies pop songs. The peak arrives when his group wins the high school Battle of the Bands with their killer version of Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World." Soon the band breaks up when the hot guitar player moves to Austin and reports back of sitting in with various Cosmic Cowboy celebs, including Willie and Waylon.

Left to his own devices, Mike the drummer forms his own group that requires months of rehearsal before they dare play in public. The small-town scene in southern Oklahoma and North Texas is presented in excruciating detail as a process of renting old wooden buildings from suspicious church groups and of outraged redneck parents interrupting his band's set when they barge in and drag their rebellious children off the dance floor in the middle of a hot rendition of "My Baby Does the Hanky Panky."

The last third of the book takes off when Mike gets a call to go on the road with a couple of bona fide black blues cats from Chicago who need a white drummer to fulfill the promise of their band name, Salt and Pepper.

After an initial period of having to learn how to play jazz tunes and adopt to driving hundreds of miles every night, Lankford finally fits in well enough to have his bandmates Vince and Dennis present him with a scroll proclaiming him an "Honorary Negro." His descriptions of the music, the stories, the juke joints, and a breath-taking account of a fatal knife fight on the dance floor are all more than worth the price of admission. You have to like a book where the only thing to whine about is the bass drum pedal breaking in the middle of a big solo at a high school dance. -- Dick Holland


Hannibal

Hannibal by Thomas Harris Delacorte, $27.95 hard

by Thomas Harris
Delacorte, $27.95 hard

What defines a "summer book"? Is it a novel's ability to withstand the numerous familial paws it passes through on the way to and from the lake, the beach, the Quick-E-Mart? Does it need to be a "good read," a book that can be shot through in the course of one humid afternoon with a chill-beaded tumbler of iced tea resting within easy reach? Should it have thrills aplenty and move like a rocket, rarely pausing for muddled introspection or philosophical asides? And does it really have to be from the hand of Mssrs. King or Clancy?

It's a matter of taste, I suppose, though it should go without saying that Thomas Harris' ravenously awaited follow-up to The Silence of the Lambs practically defines the phrase for at least this particular summer. Frequently droll, occasionally silly, but never less than entertaining, Hannibal goes good with backyard barbecue and a sixer of Heineken (or Celis Pale Bock), though this may be a fact marginally more appreciated by the novel's protagonist Clarice Starling, a former white trash runaway ripened in the arms of Quantico, than by the epicure-cum-cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who, let's face it, isn't someone you're likely to meet at Las Manitas' Sunday brunch.

Speaking of Dr. Lecter, he's been on the loose these past seven years, having escaped from FBI custody in the wake of Agent Starling's capture of serial killer Buffalo Bill. In the intervening period, Starling has watched her career falter as she's snubbed by Bureau brass for being a headstrong, intelligent woman nestled in the midst of snakes on ladders. Climbing to the top of the bureau is a man's job, she has discovered, thanks to intermittent potshots from a man by the name of Paul Krendler, an Inspector General's attaché from the Justice Department with icy political ambitions.

After a botched raid on a drug dealer's lair during Hannibal's gritty opening passages, Starling is scapegoated by Krendler and more or less put out to pasture. When news comes of old nemesis Lecter, spotted in Florence, Italy, by an equally scheming cabinieri, Starling once again finds her higher calling and sets off to recapture the madman who changed her life.

There are others on the good doctor's trial, of course, most notably Mason Verger, the only surviving victim of Lecter's long-ago appetites, an obese, politically connected child predator who slashed off his face with a broken mirror and fed it to his dogs under Lecter's watchful gaze. He's a freak with a mission. In this case, it's the capture of Lecter and the prospect of watching him be devoured by wild boars. This bit of Dr. Phibesian gothicana is at the heart of Hannibal as much as Starling's increasingly abstruse kinship to her quarry, and both fuel Harris' bloody bobsled-rushing tale to its pleasingly grim conclusion.

Hannibal cooks along like one of the Dr.'s ornate epicurian feasts, moving from Florence (where Harris tends to bog down in the minutiae of Lecter's ex-pat existence and elitist consumerism: "Dr. Lecter very much liked to shop. He drove directly to Hammacher Schlemmer ... and there he took his time." And on, and on, and on) to Starling's Maryland, to Verger's remote Virginia farmhouse. Fans of Harris' Red Dragon -- still, I think, Harris' best work -- may bridle at the author's Bret Easton Ellisizing of Dr. Lecter what with his incessant taste-making and the loving lists of what the character had to eat that day, but Silence aficionados will doubtless swoon over the reuniting of Starling and her alter ego (or id, as the case may be). Summer reading? Why yes, with some liver and a nice Chianti, thank you.-- Marc Savlov

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