This Week's Reads

Yann Martel, Alice Munro, Michael Chabon, Martin Page, and Gideon Defoe.

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

By Yann Martel (Harcourt, $22) Before Yann Martel won the 2002 Booker Prize for Life of Pi, he was the obscure author of this remarkably thin 1993 collection of etiolated stories, which prove that experimental fictions by young writers virtually always fail. Still, there is discipline in his failure, and considerable promise, without which the book could not be so disappointing (nor Pi such a leap forward). He confesses that he rewrote his tyro efforts a bit to make them less excruciating—would that Kurt Vonnegut had done the same for his Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Early Fiction. Even with the spiff-up, Martel's juvenilia, like Vonnegut's, is of keen interest only to fans and scholars. The title tale—a novella, really—is about a Canadian college philosophy student who, like Martel, flunked out and endured the AIDS death of a close friend, circa 1986. His angry grief arias and disintegration descriptions are competent and moving: "He reminds me of garbage—bad mat, moulding cheese, rotting bread, overripe fruit—yet from this putrefaction a faint, quavering voice clamours its humanity by speaking my name." The story's conceit is that, inspired by The Decameron, the two guys pass the time waiting for the Reaper by improvising a story about a family of Italian Finns. Each chapter springs from yearly events in world history between 1900 and 1986. Thus, when transfusions slow his virus, the patient chooses 1938's invention of the ballpoint pen instead of Kristallnacht; as he gets sicker and bitterer, he selects 1940's Nazi "mercy-killing" program, "Operation T4": "Short for Tiergartenstrasse 4, the address in Berlin from which the program was run, and exactly the same name as the cells in the immune system that are attacked by HIV." Young Yann was clever, precious, aimless, and mildly sentimental. "The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto With One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton" is a more maudlin piece about a young man visiting a newly rich workaholic childhood chum in D.C. He stumbles upon a ragtag orchestra of 'Nam vets performing an alcoholic janitor veteran's composition, incompetently yet inspiringly in a way the writer can't put into words. "Manners of Dying" comprises a warden's letter to a mother describing the events leading up to her son's execution, retold nine times with variations—the kid is crazed or resigned, eats steak or caviar. The differences make no difference; this story should've been murdered at birth. Last among the stories, "The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last Till Kingdom Come" is the reminiscence of an octogenarian widow juxtaposed with the internal monologue of her impatient grandson hearing out her ramblings. Her magic machine that turns memories into mirrors teaches him a lesson about life. Though the stories are more charming than I've indicated, the only possible reason to read them is obsessive interest in what Martel wrote after getting them out of his system. But hark, young promisingly bad writer! These stories scored him two screen adaptations, three stage adaptations, literary prizes, a career, and confidence to write the novel that made him a millionaire cult hero. Gentlewomen and men, start your keyboards! You can beat this kid. TIM APPELO Yann Martel will appear at University Book Store, 3 p.m. Sat., Jan. 15. Runaway: Stories

By Alice Munro (Knopf, $25) Why don't more people read short stories? The traditional old New Yorker–style story, a bland, plotless slice of contemporary life capped with an edifying epiphany, is seemingly headed the way of poetry; it's becoming an art form enjoyed mainly by its practitioners. Fortunately, in the hands of a master like Alice Munro, the short story still thrives: no loose ends, no extra words, as nourishing and self-contained as an exquisitely cooked one-dish meal. Though several of Runaway's eight meticulously crafted stories appeared first in The New Yorker, there's not a tidy revelatory moment in sight. And no one can say they lack plot. One has a man throwing himself in front of a train; another features a disappeared daughter and a corpse-burning on the beach; elsewhere there are misplaced identities, psychic phenomena, a suicidal single-car crash—a positively Shakespearean assortment of catastrophic events. Relayed with Munro's Canadian sense of restraint, these melodramatic elements register almost off-handedly, as a kind of cosmic canvas against which her female characters' dueling impulses play. New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani has—mistakenly—called Munro's style "old-fashioned realism," but it's hardly old-fashioned. With their stops and starts, their loops and whorls, her nonlinear stories represent life as it's felt, not told. They move backward and forward in time, just like the mind does; they have dead ends and blind alleys, just like our own stories. Here, the talky, eccentric intelligence of Munro's early fiction has been pared down to something darker and more elemental. Sparks of wit remain: A scholarly 21-year-old grows up in a town where "her sort of intelligence was often put in the same category as a limp or an extra thumb." More common, however, are the fragments and single-line paragraphs whose very sparseness suggests a Greek tragedy in sober northern dress. In "Tricks," for instance, the single word (also sentence, also paragraph) "nevertheless" encompasses a heartbreaking progression from disbelief to anger to resignation. This isn't the most brilliant of Munro's books. (That honor belongs to 1994's dazzling, layered Open Secrets.) But at their best, as in the arc traced by the interrelated "Chance," "Soon," and "Silence," the stories here represent the most affecting expression yet of Munro's favored themes: the destructive wake of 1960s cultural change; the cataclysmic powers of chance; and most of all, the twin pulls of family life and freedom. MARY PARK The Final Solution: A Tale of Detection

By Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate, $16.95) A minor artistic side tour for Michael Chabon, this little detective story appropriates the master sleuth of fiction, Sherlock Holmes (though he's never named), and inserts him into what might be called the summer of English Holocaust guilt. It's July 1944, and the 89-year-old Holmes has been retired for decades in the countryside, where he raises bees and ignores his fellow villagers. The order he craved in solving messy mysteries is reflected in his apiary activity; each hive is like a well-run city "in which all did precisely what they were supposed to do," while the human world has receded in importance. But a mute young German Jewish refugee boy and his stolen parrot rouse Holmes to one (presumably) last murder investigation, most stages of which Chabon depicts from a different character's perspective—including that of the parrot (who's second only to Holmes in intelligence). Since the exact means by which Holmes gets his man (well, parrot) are intentionally left unclear, Final Solution becomes more a literary exercise for Chabon, a chance to cloak his style in that of Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes is a bit of a superhero, recalling Chabon's Pulitzer Prize–winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. He's also like a writer, deducing patterns from criminal chaos, eliciting "the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life." In an opaque manner, Final Solution hints at forces even Holmes can't master, evils outside the hive. But he can return a boy's parrot, and sometimes that's enough to expect of a book. BRIAN MILLER How I Became Stupid

By Martin Page (Penguin, $13) You can hardly disagree with the premise of aimless young Paris scholar Antoine, who resolves: "Intelligence makes you unhappy, lonely, and poor." He only wants to be happy, which means casting off his bohemian friends, forsaking his interest in philosophy and Amaraic, and embracing mass culture. He's not cut out for alcoholism and suicide, so he tosses out his books and resolves to eat at McDonald's as a sort of communion with his new faith in idiocy. Succeeding quite literally by random as a stock broker, he immerses himself in consumerism—including a sports car he can't even drive—and goes to the gym to develop "muscles as the stigmata of his normality." This slim comic novel does peter out after Antoine resolves his dilemma; it's kind of like Flowers for Algernon without the pathos. Antoine's basic impulse is like a blue blue-state resident yearning to join the contented red-state majority. Even if his experiment is temporary, you can understand a guy wanting a reprieve from certainty—anything to stop stoking "the furnace of my mind." BRIAN MILLER The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists

By Gideon Defoe (Pantheon, $15.95) Arrrr! Well in advance of the next Seafair landing, this tiny little British debut novel puts buccaneers in our midst to thoroughly silly effect. Pirates reads like an extended Monty Python sketch (indeed, it even carries a jacket blurb from Eric Idle). It's also written in the form, albeit tongue-in-cheek, of juvenile adventure serials, as if the Hardy Boys have been pressed into service aboard a 19th-century corsair that keeps sailing into harm's way. (Arbitrary erudite footnotes help the winking tone.) None of the pirates bear proper names; there's the Pirate Captain, the pirate with a scarf, the pirate with a hook for a hand, and so on. A jolly, gullible band, fond of smoked ham and sea chanteys, they manage to sink the Beagle but save Charles Darwin and his great scientific discovery: Master Bobo, a mute, trained "man-panzee" who communicates by flashcards. (Evolution will have to wait, it seems.) Everyone gets along swimmingly, except for those few forced to walk the plank for morale purposes, and their voyage eventually leads to London, intrigue, and mad scientists. A sequel is planned, in which the pirates will undoubtedly find the lighter side of their next ally: Captain Ahab. BRIAN MILLER

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