Monday, September 20, 2010

10 Minimalist Novels about Love

With “What You Talk about When You Talk about Love,” Raymond Carver gave birth to Minimalist writing. He hated the term and rejected it and as the recently introduced unedited by Gordon Lish versions of this short story collection indicate, one questions how organic minimalism really is.

That said, I prefer the originals, sorry Ray (and Tess). I don’t have a problem with Minimalism. I like the term, it fits. In fact, I want to be all oxymoronic and maximize the minimalist genre. Thus this list of short-novels that I consider minimalist.

Minimalism is a sub-genre of realism. Tight, compact and sparse prose characterizes this form of fiction, which is international in scope and spans centuries. The economy of language relies on the intelligence of the reader to fill in what is left out; the writers must give you enough, but only enough, to do so. In detective, suspense and crime fiction, the style is called hard boiled.

In order to support my assertion about maximizing minimalism, I’ve listed 10 minimalist novels about love. These are not only about romantic love and love may not be the precise subject of the plot; but each work does uniquely enlighten the reader about an aspect of love. Love fuels each of these stories.

Fewer than 300 pages is the main arbitrary criteria for this list, in addition to what I consider to be a minimalist style of writing. I rejected anything over 300 pages, any short story collections or anything self-titled as a novella. I avoided genre fiction that could be considered under this rubric. These are all literary authors, as the saying goes. I don’t make up the nomenclature but I’ve learned to live with it.

Consider this a list a “Top 10” if that fills your need to argue. I have not ranked them. The order they are in was not intentional and has no bearing on measuring individual strengths or weaknesses. It was just enough to make the list, for me.

These books may be a little too long for one sitting, but certainly less than half a dozen (or one-to-two weeks worth of PATH commutes, depending on your stop) sitting will do the job. Rereading them should only take one sitting. They are all worth re-reading... again and again.

Angels by Denis Johnson

The award winning Tree of Smoke is the bloated prequel to this tight piece of down and out fiction by our greatest living writer (take that Roth!). Bus stations, laundry mats, greasy spoon diners and psychiatric wards at the county hospital comprise the setting for the love story of Jamie Mays and Bill Houston, who meet on a Greyhound Bus and try to find a little happiness together as they struggle with drug addiction. Jamie and Bill wind up at the end of the line, with nothing left to lose except each other. Johnson’s characters have never been so seamlessly believable—or the grittiness so convincing—as in Angels, which is saying a lot when you’re talking about the master of the gritty and infamous.

Happy All The Time by Laurie Colwin

Colwin died at age 48 in the early 90s and is revered by devout foodies. She was a serious food writer and magazine editor in the pre-food network era. I care about her other career, the short stories and novels, which are mainly about romantic relationships in the city, usually New York, as the late 60s evolved into the Reagan era. The writing is economical and pointed. The wit is extreme, consistent and infectious. She is one of the funniest writers of her generation. I think I named this novel because it was the first one I read. After reading it, I spent the next few months devouring the rest of her literary oeuvre. The sunniest book I ever read that I actually enjoyed... a lot. The story concerns two couples who celebrate their love by being alive and eating great meals. There is no schmaltz or easy sentimentality. The optimistic tone of her realism obscures the complexity of the novel. It’s the same complexity of actual life, which this novel genuinely depicts and rejoices in.

La Dame Aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas Fils

My dental hygienist is an opera freak. This short novel is the basis of Camille, the opera. We had this discussion about the opera, which she saw the night before, during a cleaning. She did most of the talking as she scraped the tarter off my teeth. Intrigued, and not being an opera fan, I went out and got the novel. I could not put it down. You probably already know the ending. Spoiler alert: no happily ever after. This novel is not dated, was a satisfying read and thoroughly entertaining. The translation in the Oxford edition is superb, rendering the French into fresh, vivid English. The story of the love affair is told to a third party, a disinterested narrator who, like the reader, gradually becomes absorbed into the lives of the two star-crossed lovers playing out this sad, beautiful saga. A young aristocrat falls in love with an older woman, a concubine. French society opposes the purity of their love; the young man’s father puts an end to it. Out of his life, she dies of consumption. He mourns until he dies. Love is a passionate force that threatens the social class system and the social class system always wins. But for those who are in love, redemption and uplift resides in their love. That’s the point of this novel: no matter the anguish that follows, those brief moments are worth the price of your life.

After Leaving Mr. McKenzie by Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys captures ex-pat, post World War I Paris with a clarity and honesty that her American and British peers lack. She’s the queen of compact writing. I could pick any of her novels for this list. This selection is admittedly somewhat arbitrary. I wanted to include her and wanted to avoid the over-rated “Wide Sargasso Sea.” Julie is in her late 30s, hitting the expiration date to be a kept woman, a position she took up after the dissolution of her first marriage. Her officer husband was affected by the war, and after the divorce, she went from one affair to another. The novel begins with her getting dumped by the rich brit in the title. Her situation is now desperate, the affairs not as profitable or forthcoming. What is below rock bottom? When does the moment when Dog becomes Wolf occur? This novel—which takes place during the span of a fortnight as she gets dumped, returns to London to watch her mother die, then returns back to Paris, poor and alone—is the story of a woman at that fateful moment. The cracks may be gussied up with a 1920s European motif, but the sound of falling through them remains all too familiar.

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawataba

Reading this novel recently inspired this list. A man in his 50s looks up a woman he had an affair with 20 years earlier, when she was just a teenager. He’s a novelist and she is a geisha and an artist of some renown, which in Japan at the time seems to be an acceptable career choice. She never married and is having a lesbian relationship with her 20 year old protégé, who is mentally unstable. The protégé seeks revenge for the affair which ended badly and for the fact her mentor still loves the man. So, she seduces both the man and his son. Kawataba sneaks one of the most gnarly and erotic melodramas you’ll ever encounter into his well-observed, oblique prose.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I read Gatsby very summer. All Americans should. I always marvel at the flawless structure of the story telling and those wonderful, spell-binding sentences, each one more perfect than the next. It’s between this and Breakfast at Tiffany’s as the two most perfect pieces of writing in English. Fitzgerald wins because of the vast substance of this ever-green piece of American mythology. Sometimes I ponder how much of a noir it really is—Jay Gatz is a total gangster—other times I wonder if the real story it tells is the one about Nick Caraway, the narrator, and his tragic realization that the rigid Midwestern class system is the only constant in the Jazz Age. But it’s mainly about love and after the most recent read a line lingered, Gatsby dismissing Tom’s love for Daisy by declaring it “only personal.” Gatsby winds up shot in his rented pool and Tom, who set Gatsby up, gets to keep Daisy. Thus it always is when mortals, no matter how upwardly mobile their aspirations, pursue a love beyond the personal.

Two Against One by Frederick Bartheleme

Thoroughly modern comic novel by the greatest prose stylist alive. After a trial separation, Edward’s ex-wife and girl friend meet during his 40th birthday weekend. The wife also invites her lover whose wife recently died in a car accident. The unconventional becomes normal, the messiness beside the point. Allegiances shift and connections are made and unmade. Love is not friendship, let’s be clear. Everyone mixes it up in this mid-summers night nightmare, amid the cul de sacs and the strip malls, somewhere in the New South, which in reality is anywhere USA. They drive on highways, they shop in chain stores, they eat in franchise restaurants. This is how the book ends: after completing a somewhat tawdry sex act with his girlfriend, she reassures Edward that his wife still loves him. You have to read this novel to understand how this scene restores sanity and order in this hilarious yet heart breaking romp.

Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

How close is erotic love to spiritual love? The subtext of this novel asserts that not only are they close, they may be identical. The other nuns in a turn of the century, upstate N.Y. convent are suspicious of the dreamy and voluptuous young Mariette when she joins their order. The passion of her devotion to her new vocation has unnervingly sexual undertones. She is regarded with suspicion. Then, the novice gets the stigmata, which has to be investigated, upsetting the peace of the convent. Every one involved wonders about the difference between faith and God’s love. Forget your preconceptions about the subject matter; this is one of the best examples of minimalist writing ever. Prepare to be fascinated.

Child of God by Cormac Mcarthy

As No Country for Old Man proved, Cormac is best when he stays short. With the excellent Cohen Brothers movie, his appearance on Oprah, Blood Meriden glorification by Harold Bloom and All the Pretty Horses getting him on the best seller’s list, this early compact novel often gets overlooked. The reader roots for Lester, who except for his necrophilia and willingness to murder is a stand up guy. This disturbing story is writing of the highest order. Lester is an unrelenting romantic... well, the unrelenting part at least. When he buys his beloved new girlfriend, a corpse, a new dress, Cormac combines the grotesque, the terrifying and the absurd in such way that you realize “A Rose for Emily,” only scratched the surface of morbid love. Unforgettable.

Becalmed by Joris Karl Huysman

An atypical book by the master minimalist; not one of the five-volume Dutral series that seeks to revive medieval Catholicism, nor the “Against Nature” Dessentes that still inspires—and articulates—a decadent rejection of society. In Becalmed, a couple moves from the city to the country for peace of mind and the quiet life. They think nature will improve their well being. They are wrong. The French peasantry—and the thickening foliage of the countryside—are scarier than anything in Paris. The couple—the only time Huysman writes about a couple—have only their love and marriage to protect them. A fun read, his spare prose will always sound contemporary. You’ll think twice about breaking your Paris lease.

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