Destruction, anarchy, extinction

Six Novels Of November

November 18, 2001|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,Special to the Sun

Whether readers are looking for illuminating drama or escape in these troubled times, a new crop of novels offers a smattering of both.

Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald, translated by Anthea Bell (Random House, 298 pages, $25.95), layers one man's search for his identity against the dark sprawl of European history and culture. Sebald, a native of Germany who teaches literature in England, tells this ambitious story with not only words, but a trickle of black and white photographs. The title character's endless exploration of architecture frames the recounting of his life to an acquaintance.

Austerlitz's Jewish mother sent him to England when he was a boy, as the Nazis began to sweep through Europe. He doesn't discover his origins until late in his youth, and he goes on a quest to find out what happened to his parents amid Hitler's slaughter of millions of Jews.

There's a darkness inherent in Austerlitz's architectural critiques, like this one of the Palace of Justice in Brussels: "At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins." At another point, he notes the design of the ghetto where his mother was taken, an architecture contrived around imprisonment and death.

Austerlitz's painful journey ranges from Nuremberg, site of Nazi rallies, to the inhospitable Paris library built on the site of warehouses where the Nazis stored valuables stolen from Jews. Civilization is a malevolent force in his story, which is told through the gradual accumulation of almost random details and impressions. The result is powerful and thought-provoking.

Another book set in a tumultuous Europe -- specifically, Paris in 1968 -- is Love in the Days of Rage, by Beat movement figure Lawrence Ferlinghetti (The Overlook Press, 128 pages, $13.95).

The slim novel's language soars at times, when it's not getting too French, as it tells of the unlikely love affair between American painter Annie and Portuguese banker and would-be anarchist Julian.

There's a kind of naivete in the nonsensical political monologues and descriptions of the student revolution, and I'm not feeling much sympathy right now for characters who advocate violence and anarchy over peace, as Julian ultimately does. Still, Ferlinghetti captures the irrationality of love.

Set in a quiet Georgia coastal town during the weeks around the bombing of Pearl Harbor is Sophie and the Rising Sun, by Augusta Trobaugh (Dutton, 213 pages, $22.95). This sweet, old-fashioned story is about the loving friendship that grows between a simple Japanese-American gardener and the unmarried Southern lady who lives down the street. Both paint pictures by the water each Sunday morning and become fodder for the town gossip.

With a gentle hand and glass-clear prose, Trobaugh explores the villagers' foibles, racism and tension after the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Her memorable characters make this novel a fast and pleasurable read.

Notes on Extinction, by Janice Deaner (Dutton, 240 pages, $254.95), revisits the Holocaust, but in a very different way from Austerlitz. The protagonist of this intriguing novel is a cold American writer whose area of expertise is extinction. Will Mendelsohn loses years of work in a fire, then loses the wife he didn't love anyway. What follows is a journey around the world that pauses in India for a love affair, political turmoil and violence.

The experience is transforming for Will, whose parents survived the Holocaust. His mother's stories cast a terrible shadow over his childhood, and mother and son feel kindred only when his suffering allows him to understand the fragility, and resilience, of life.

Except for an over-the-top subplot about a mysterious letter, Deaner falters rarely. Her novel is punctuated by excerpts from Will's work on extinct species. These fact-based pages are profound and poetic and, in some ways, are the most compelling passages in this worthy book.

And now for the escapism: But can you really call something as bent and violent as Jerry Stahl's Plainclothes Naked (William Morrow, 336 pages, $25) escapist?

Well, yes. And no. It's grueling and funny, disgusting and brilliant. Stahl (Permanent Midnight) has written a detective story that takes the twisted sensibility of Carl Hiaasen and ratchets it way up into the realm of the hopelessly depraved. There are gruesome deaths, sexual assault, a desiccated puppy and excessive drug use, including the snorting of a dead person's ashes.

There are no good characters here, only less bad ones. Yet Manny the detective is worth rooting for despite his pill-popping, abuse of power and unwise love for a murder suspect. There are laughs, but they come from a very dark place. And the plot -- the opposite of politically correct right now -- involves a photo of the president's genitals. Be warned.

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