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review 2016-12-15 14:33
The Virtues of Reading the Book First
Inherent Vice - Thomas Pynchon

So, I watched the movie first on this one guys. I'm often torn between my own inclinations and not being "that guy" so when Paul Thomas Anderson made a movie that looked really good based on a book that wasn't really on my radar I had three options:

 

  1. Read the book immediately.
  2. Wait on the movie until I got around to the book,
  3. Damn the torpedoes and see the movie anyway.

 

I saw the movie anyway.

 

Honestly though, it wasn't a bad choice, though it's hard to tell. For one, I saw the movie in its theatrical run which was over 2 years ago. Also, the movie was what attracted me, I hadn't heard a lot about the book and it did stick in my mind but I think I would have been happy if I had stuck with the movie which I really enjoyed.

 

The movie stays pretty close to the book, but by its nature brings a lot more to every scene, the acting, the blocking of the shot, the music, it adds a lot to the tone that is difficult to subtract when you're reading the same event in the book. At times I thought the book seemed a bit goofier than the movie which lays a mysterious noir-like tone even as Doc is trying to remember if he's hallucinating or not. Then I remember scenes from the movie where the comedy was played up more than the book so who knows. 

 

The one last thing I will say about Inherent Vice the movie, is that it was tighter. Not exactly neat -- it is a sort of noir or commentary on noir after all -- but it returns to the early themes in a way the book doesn't and it ditches a long and confusing trip to Las Vegas from the book that seemed extraneous even on the page.

 

The Vegas trip deals with the missing land developer's wife's boyfriend and Puck Beaverton who is a thug at the center of the conspiracy but gets a side story about turning a girl onto anal sex and Doc Sportello going along to reunite them resulting in their marriage. When we meet Puck again the whole marriage adventure seems to melt away and you have to wonder what the hell that was all about.

 

It's one of the strengths and the weaknesses of the novel (as opposed to a movie) even a tight one has to build a world. The movie shows you a shot of the beach and that's where you are, but those of us who never turned on, tuned in or even dropped out in 1970s California, the writer has to build the whole scene for you, or suggest enough to let you build the rest, but what contributes to that world and what is extraneous? We get a lot of passages that fill out Doc's character as someone who has past experiences and baggage, but many of which don't tell us much more than we already gleaned in terms of character. Even great writers need great editors.

 

At it's best, Inherent Vice is a damn good book. It's my first brush with Pynchon which is a shock and I'm sure he has done better, but I could see why he is a highly regarded writer, there are some vivid scenes that draw you in and pull you down the rabbit hole in this booke. He also shows an ability to twist and toy with multiple literary vernaculars: dissecting them in a way that feels uncanny. That is familiar but not really. 

 

In any case, noir is a good form for a book that is interested in things that have been lost: the hippie movement, ethnic enclaves of early Los Angeles, the sense of security of the pre-Manson era. It's melancholy, "hard-boiled" as they say, but like most books by those descriptions it retains a weary hopefulness. There's something inherently hopeful in being old fashioned.

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review 2016-11-23 14:10
'The Girls' by Emma Cline
The Girls: A Novel - Emma Cline

First thing you want to know is probably about the cult, and why wouldn't you? It's dramatic and different and the kind of thing that sucks all the air out of a room. It's the hook, it's what it said in the newspaper, it says it right there on the book jacket! But pretty quickly in reading The Girls you realize that Emma Cline may not have a lot to say about cults and what the story is really about  was spelled out right on the cover: girls. And girlhood. The cult is just how we get there.

 

The Girls centers around Evie Boyd, 14 years old in 1969 and in her late 50s sometime in the recent past. And yes, she ends up hanging around a cult that closely resembles the Manson Family, at least in the few facts I know from popular memory. "The Ranch" is a commune of hippie-like folks centered around a charismatic leader who really just wants to be a musician. It all ends in a home invasion and multiple-homicide, including a kid and a young mother.

 

That sounds really interesting and could carry a novel, I'm sure, but Cline here treats it as an accessory, a shiny bauble to draw our attention to more immediate experiences. It's nearly 100 pages before we even get to the ranch and while the murders hang over like a cloud — Cline reminds us periodically with a page or two of description adding more details to the grisly scene — what is striking is the ordinariness. Cline looks beyond the cult leader show and finds a community of women that joke and play and get annoyed with each other and make the whole thing run in the days when murder is as remote a possibility as it is at any high school party. It is women that carry out the murders and women that he mostly keeps around and while they are all attracted and devoted to him, it is how they are together that attracts Evie.

 

 

The story maintains many of the elements of a coming-of-age tale — losing innocence, finding new experiences, discovering sex, friction with parents and childhood friends — but it is also different for girls, more complicated. Where sex is an achievement for boys, for Evie it is a double edged sword. It can be a power to wield, but it also can invite violence. Sex is a thing men think they can possess, and they are not kindly to women who deny them.

 

Evie being 14 years old adds to the sense of danger and discomfort. Like in Lolita, her youth and the age of those around her colors everything. Experiences that might be valuable and enjoyable, even empowering, are tainted by how young she is, her lack of control over the situations. I don't think I need to say much past the fact that Russell is said to look about the same age as Evie's mother. We see some of these elements replayed for adult Evie watching the young couple that stays with her for a few days, recognizing the young girl's want to be like and accepted and how the older men take advantage.

 

Cline's scenes are these wonderful pieces of writing that seem to grow exponentially with each sentence, like one of those spiral toys as a kid that just guide your pen in circles that overlap and multiply into a stunning design. Her first lines are generally simple, straightforward, factual, and then the scene builds. She has an eye for the details that make the whole thing turn, that cause you to feel a twist in your chest and keep you turning to the next page even when the characters have all let you down.

 

I definitely recommend The Girls. Put it on your holiday list, the 2017 reading challenge starts soon.

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