Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Neil Young took Coltrane's Wail and Stuck it into an Electric Guitar

Two Books

I've been reading somewhat slowly lately, due to many outdoor treks and other ventures, but these two books are definitely worth the time. Both are runners up for the National Book Award.

Telex from Cuba, by Rachel Kushner (former editor of BOMB!) is a complex, lyrical, witty, intelligent investigation of colonial Cuba. Narrated by multiple characters, but largely children of the corporate managers, the stories travel through the eras of Prio, Batista, and the Castro Brothers tracking the relationships between American industrialism (such as United Fruit) and the national government. The stories that comprise this tapestry often conflict, and the net result, for me, was a deeper understanding than would emerge from a more univocal novel. The children exist in a unique world shared by their priviledge, but also by children of the oppressed cultures -- particularly Haitians and Cubans. They move in and out of these worlds both aware and unaware; they witness the economic abuse, and the very humane compassion, often from the same person. There are no easy answers other than polyvalent contradictions, and a similar scenario is most certainly taking place in many third and fourth world countries today. The theme of exploitation continues my forays into novels such as Tree of Smoke and The Grapes of Wrath.

The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon, is a parallel narrative that also continues this theme. The initial narrative begins when a Russian Jewish immigrant, Lazarus Auverbach, shows up unnanounced on the doorstep of the Chicago Police Chief, Chief Shippy, with an envelope. He is invited in, and subsequently shot dead by the chief and several other police. This narrative begins to explore the immigrant conditions in Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, the anarchist forces of protest, the tenuous Jewish voice, and the corrupt power and brutality of the Chicago Police. The second narrative is that of Vladimir Brik, a recent Bosnian immigrant. The recipient of a grant to write an investigation of Lazarus, Brik joins a photographer friend and travels back to Eastern Europe, tracing the route he imagines young Lazarus and his sister Olga took to escape the waves of pogroms. Their bizarre and often surreal adventure, replete with thugs, hookers, war and love develops parallel to the earlier investigation of Lazarus' murder. Hemon delivers gritty, desperate and depressing insight into the fulfillment of immigrant dreams.

Reflecting a bit on this book, it's interesting and disturbing that once each wave of immigrant becomes settled they tend to violate the new comers.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009