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LOVE AND THE INCREDIBLY OLD MAN

The novel is whimsical, erotic and comic all at the same time, and Ponce de León is revealed as an exuberant, self-indulgent...

The “incredibly old man” of the title is none other than Juan Ponce de León, who (in Siegel’s take) did discover the Fountain of Youth, lived through tumultuous historical times and died in 2006.

The conceit of this novel from Siegel (Who Wrote the Book of Love?, 2005, etc.) is that Ponce de León contacts a writer of indifferent gifts named Lee Siegel to pen his memoirs, for the Spanish explorer hasn’t written anything of note since his last logbook entry in 1513. Siegel takes on the formidable task, meanwhile trying to decide whether de León is fraudulent, authentic or crazy. The narrative is divided into historical sections beginning in 1465 and ending with a coda in 2006. Along the way we become acquainted with the subject’s life: his background as a “converso” (or converted Jew); his being dispatched to the New World in search of the Fountain of Youth; his invention of cigars and rum and discovery of popcorn; his taking on the guise of a priest but later dedicating the first synagogue in Florida; his later years as an actor and land speculator. But he recounts with even greater zest the catalogue of his lovers—and over the course of some 540 years this list is impressive. Starting out with Queen Ysabel la Católica and running into the 20th century, de León whores and debauches his way through some 30 or more lovers. (In later life he makes an alphabetical catalogue he runs through to help him get to sleep at night.) He does point out, however, that he got married only five times, an average of once per century. Throughout the novel, a comic discrepancy exists between de León, who wants to be memorialized in a particular way, and Siegel, who does his best but is constantly subject to de León’s refinements, criticisms and (occasionally) contempt.

The novel is whimsical, erotic and comic all at the same time, and Ponce de León is revealed as an exuberant, self-indulgent and crusty old guy.

Pub Date: April 25, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-226-75705-6

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2008

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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