September 24, 2009

Hell by Robert Olen Butler

I'm a fan of what James calls "infernals" - novels that are either set in hell, or about the devil or some such thing. Huge fan of the Inferno, which goes without saying, but I also loved I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan and A Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, which, though strictly speaking not an infernal was close enough to appeal. Given my taste for this uplifting subject, I was pretty interested when James picked up Robert Olen Butler's new novel, Hell. It is indeed about hell - one person's hell in particular, set in everyone else's hell - and there was a lot to like about it. But I can't get much more enthusiastic than that.

Robert Olen Butler won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. He is also, now that John Cheever's gone, one of our foremost short story writers. The bar on anything he publishes is pretty high, and for good reason. This is a man who has mastered his craft and yet, for a man who has mastered his craft, Hell is pretty slap dash.

Briefly put, Hell is the story of Hatcher McCord, a newscaster in life, and now head anchor on Satan's own Evening News from Hell. Rather than Dante's lakes of molten fire, Butler's hell is like an extremely bad day that never ends. Good sex is impossible, sulpherous rains fall from the sky, there is no meat to be had and physical harm is done only long enough for denizens to suffer a bit. Then they reconstitute and go about their day. It's the suffering that's important, and the most damnable thing about Butler's hell is that the denizens are compelled to seek out the things that will make them suffer most. But Hatcher discovers that perhaps this is not, strictly speaking, how it has to be.

The widely held belief is that Satan can hear everything going on in everyone's heads so that each denizen gets punished according to his thoughts. But during an interview with Satan for Hatcher's "Why Do You Think You're Here" series, he discovers that Satan cannot hear his thoughts. This opens up a world of mental freedom and self-discovery for Hatcher, a journey he undertakes with the hope of eventually finding a way out.

All of that is excellent. It's a great premise - that we suffer because we expect to, that hell is our own assumed response to perceived external threat. The problem is that Butler doesn't explore it. He doesn't even really pay attention to it. He's too busy piling on the cameos to care.

Butler's hell is a who's who of everyone who ever lived. Hatcher's girlfriend is Anne Boleyn, who still carries a torch for Henry VIII, despite her detachable head. The BeeGees make an appearance with J. Edgar Hoover as Satan's powder-blue suited minions, Dick Nixon is Satan's chauffeur, Chaucer is a failed novelist and Chaucer's girlfriend, Beatrice, is screwing Virgil on the side. Etc. Etc. Etc. It's all clever, but overdone. What's worse is that the cameos, which Butler clearly loves, distract, perhaps intentionally, from the premise that could be so compelling. He fails to develop the story, and so it fails to have a point, let alone any intellectual or emotional resonance.

In the end, Hell is thought-provoking (if you look hard enough), but hardly thoughtful - very careless work for a writer of Butler's stature. The story's potential, though not totally wasted, fails to get fulfilled. I'd recommend reading it if your looking for light diversion, but not wanting to be totally consumed. If what you want is an infernal with a little more bite - emotional or philosophical - I'd look somewhere else. Dante's always good.

September 8, 2009

Drood by Dan Simmons

This is not a review of Drood by Dan Simmons. This is a reminder to myself of two things:

1. Self, you started Drood and stopped after the second chapter.

2. You stopped because you are a dork. You took offense to Simmons' taking liberties with Wilkie Collins, one of your favorite 19th century authors, and the fictional narrator of Drood.

Simmons used Wilkie Collins as his narrator and, though the portrayal was droll and interesting at first, it quickly devolved into a portrayal of Collins as a petty, no-talent hack. While you cannot speak to the petty part, Wilkie Collins was by no means a no-talent hack. He revolutionized gothic fiction and introduced the concept of serialized narration with The Woman in White, he was one of the first to use the detective figure to solve a literary mystery in The Moonstone (an innovation which inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle among others), and he examined the injustice of inheritance laws for women in 19th century England in No Name. On top of all of that, Collins wrote some really ripping good ghost stories.

For all of these dorky reasons do you love Wilkie Collins, and for all of these reasons did you put Drood down. Just a little note should you ever want to pick it up again.

September 1, 2009

A Meal Observed by Andrew Todhunter

I enjoy food memoirs, this despite the fact that I haven't read that many of them - some of Peter Mayle's Provence books (charming), several M.F.K Fisher essays (brilliant), and a few other odds and ends. Happily, I can now add Andrew Todhunter's book, A Meal Observed to the list.

A Meal Observed is, quite literally, an account of one meal, a meal that Todhunter and his wife, Erin, ate at the venerable Taillevent, a Michelin 3 star restaurant in Paris, arguably the best in France. This meal, as Todhunter describes it, is a work of culinary art. He takes us through each of the nine courses slowly, describing not only the food, but the ambience in the dining room, the impeccable service and, most interesting to me, the preparation of each dish in the kitchen. He includes informal anecdotes and interviews with the chef de cuisine, Philippe Legendre and pastry chef Gilles Bajolle, which he compiled over several months of apprenticing in the kitchens of Taillevent.

I loved Todhunter's description of food - he made me want to eat lobster, and I don't like lobster at all. Unfortunately, I could have done with a little bit more time spent with the meal and less on Todhunter's interesting, yet at times random, musings. Still, this is a small complaint, and one I should be careful in making. Todhunter is a bit of a curmudgeon as far as restaurants and etiquette go, and I enjoyed most of his random tangents because I tend towards the curmudgeonly too. For example, his mild rant about American waiters calling their patrons "guys", as in "hey guys, can I take your order?" cracked me up, so I can't complain too loudly at its inclusion.

A Meal Observed is a book that I would like to own, not because I loved every minute of it (though I would say that I enjoyed almost every page), but because it recounts in thoughtful detail a meal of the sort that I will probably never enjoy. We are not likely to go to Paris anytime soon, and if we do, we are quite unlikely to to spend $700 on dinner, which is a shame because I'd like to. I wouldn't say that A Meal Observed is as good as being in the restaurant yourself, but it is a lovely reminder that such restaurants and experiences do exist, and that someday, maybe, maybe, maybe, you might have that experience too.