Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Night by Elie Wiesel

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

In my mind the saddest moment of Elie Wiesel's Night--though perhaps it cannot rival the horror of the account a man gives of putting his own father's body into the furnace, or the pristine melancholy of the dying violinist's last concerto before he collapses in the suffocating traincar--comes at the very end, when Wiesel sees his own reflection for the first time in moths: "From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me... The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me."

Those words were published in 1958, and only Wiesel, now 82, can tell us if the corpse still peers back at him. Like all living Holocaust survivors, his longevity has become a sort of triumphant irony; doubly so, since in a way he is frozen in that awful moment. He spent a scant eight months in various concentration camps, yet the night, he tells us, is life-long. His work affirms it, from his various novels and memoirs about the Holocaust and novels about Holocaust survivors to his tireless work promoting international peace and genocide awareness. Night is a story about survival, but it is also a story about the formation of an identity: The Wiesel that is liberated from the camps is not the Wiesel who entered them, and for him it seems the Holocaust is inescapable because--like all of us--he is condemned to follow himself around.

Most significantly, the man who is liberated has lost his faith, though once he was eager to study the Torah and Kabbalah. The terms of this loss are never quite clear; though Wiesel seems not to believe that God does not exist--or, in the Nietzschean way, that God is dead--but can he can no longer believe in God's goodness:

For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless his name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank him for?

So goes Wiesel's earthly father, too: Though early in the book he sought above all to stay at his father's side--even teaching him how to march in step so that he might not be whipped by the Kapos, and sharing his rations when his father falls ill--when his father finally dies, Wiesel feels more relief than regret. In the last scene it becomes clear that he has lost everyone but himself, and it is a self that he struggles to recognize.

This is how I think Night ought to be read: Not as a blood-letting, but an anti-catharsis, Wiesel's attempt to come to terms with himself. It seems that he didn't speak about his experience in the concentration camps for over a decade after they ended, and when he was finally convinced to write them down, the first draft, published in Yiddish, covered nearly 900 pages.

Better to have it out of the way and to try again; as Brent pointed out to me the other day, the strength of Night lies in its brevity. It doesn't seem quite reliable as a historical document, and as a literary object it is frequently inartful--he says things like an SS officer's hands are "like wolf's paws"--but it is swift, brutal, and numbing. If it were any longer, we might merely wince and turn away.

He reminds me--and perhaps this is a stretch for you--of the Ancient Mariner, who was claimed by the Nightmare Life-in-Death and sentenced to walk the earth and warn others of his experience. The Mariner, however, did so to atone for his own sins and Wiesel seems to be eternally toning for the sins of others. I pity Wiesel--the real one, and not the one of the book, who never seems to ask for sympathy--because it seems to me that the author of Night seeks to find himself and can only discover that which is most loathsome to him. It isn't so much a story that expresses "never forget," but one that tells us why he cannot, though perhaps he may wish to.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

There are plenty of good reasons for fighting," I said, "but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where's evil? It's that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side.

While reading the AV Club’s recent review of the movie adaptation of Vonnegut’s Slapstick, someone in the comments noted that it was difficult to make good movies from Vonnegut’s stories because his themes tend to be so dark that, without his bleakly humorous narrative voice to leaven them, his stories are almost unbearably depressing. I couldn’t get that thought out of my mind while reading Mother Night; less funny than Cat’s Cradle and less hopeful than Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night would be a real wrist-slitter without Vonnegut’s tone.

The main character is Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American spy who disguised himself by acting as a Nazi broadcaster and propagandist during World War II. The novel opens as he is dictating his life story. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because a lot of its power comes from the way it plays with its main theme, identity. It’s all right there in the quote at the start of this review: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

That’s a fair summation of the entire book, probably even moreso than the plot description. Virtually every character given significant word count is something besides what they appear to be—or are they? When Campbell is preparing to leave Germany after the war, he tells his German father-in-law goodbye, to which his father-in-law replies that he’d hoped, ever since the marriage, that Howard would turn out to be a spy, but then he recants:

'And do you know why I don't care now if you were a spy or not?' he said. 'You could tell me now that you were a spy, and we would go on talking calmly, just as we're talking now. I would let you wander off to wherever spies go when a war is over. You know why?' he said.

'No,' I said.

'Because you could nev­er have served the enemy as well as you served us,' he said. 'I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler — but from you.' He took my hand. 'You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.'

The central question of this passage, and the whole book, isn’t exactly subtle, but it is powerful: is it significant what you actually are, if that doesn’t match up with what your actions, and, more importantly, is such a disconnect even possible? For Campbell, the dilemma is even worse, since, during his years of service, he never learned what information he was transmitting to America in his broadcasts—was the information he gave to the good buys as useful as the encouragement he gave to the bad?

I doubt Vonnegut would like my usage of the good/bad dichotomy though—aside from identity, a lot of the book deals with the difference between a person as an individual and a person as part of a whole: Vonnegut’s Nazis are as human and likable as his Americans, maybe moreso. The White Supremacists who eventually become Campbell’s protectors are friendlier and kinder to him than most of his compatriots throughout the war. Ultimately, Campbell even chooses to remain with friends who’ve betrayed him, in a nice synthesis of the two major themes—they are his friends because of what they’ve done, not because of what they are.

Of course, when it’s all said and done, there’s nothing particularly wonderful about Campbell’s decision to stick with friends he knows were planning to betray him, or, really, any of his other choices throughout the novel. They seem to follow the ethos of the man making them: they are nothing more than a way to mark time until he gets what he deserves, not for what he is, but for what he has shown himself to be.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

But what is so headstrong as youth? What so blind as inexperience? These affirmed that it was a pleasure enough to have the privilege of again looking on Mr. Rochester, whether he looked on me or not; and they added--"Hasten! hasten! be with him while you may: but a few more days or weeks at most, and you are parted with him for ever!" and then I strangled a new-born agony--a deformed thing which I could not persuade myself to own and rear--and ran on.

Jane Eyre is not so much like Austen as I had thought, though perhaps in certain superficialities. Jane fits the Emma-Elizabeth mode well enough in her wit and her strength of character, but unlike those other heroines she is all earnestness; because she writes in first person we are not permitted to admire her from a distance, and we are precluded from those wonderful Austenian ironies that Charlotte Bronte seems to have disdained.

Jane is an orphan, loathed by her adoptive aunt and shuffled off to a long and spartan childhood at a boarding school before eventually becoming the governess to a young French girl named Adele. Adele is the ward of Edward Fairfax Rochester, who is Jane Eyre's finest achievement. Chesterton calls him "primevally and supernaturally caddish," and so he is, continuously prodding Jane with deadpan jokes, half-truths, and pranks that signify a cerebral form of flirtation. Naturally, the connection between the two seems destined to triumph over their difference in station. Jane, for her part, is never so engaging or appealing as when she is in conversation with Mr. Rochester:

He chuckled; he rubbed his hands: "Oh, it is too rich to see and hear her!" he exclaimed. "Is she original? Is she piquant? I would not exchange this one little English girl for the grand Turk's whole seraglio; gazelle-eyes, houri forms and all!"

The eastern allusion bit me again: "I'll not stand you an inch in the stead of a seraglio," I said; "so don't consider me an equivalent for one; if you have a fancy for anything in that line, away with you, sir, to the bazars of Stamboul without delay; and lay out in extensive slave-purchases some of that spare cash you seem at a loss to spend satisfactorily here."

"And what will you do, Janet, while I am bargaining for so many tons of flesh and such an assortment of black eyes?"

"I'll be preparing myself to go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are enslaved--your harem inmates among the rest. I'll get admitted there, and I'll stir up mutiny; and you, three-tailed bashaw as you are, sir, shall in a trice find yourself fettered amongst our hands: nor will I, for one, consent to cut your bonds till you have signed a charter, the most liberal that despot ever yet conferred."

Mr. Rochester compels because Bronte has ceded to him the power of irony; he is an ironist and when she is with him, Jane, who otherwise seems nearly incapable of it, is an ironist as well. His flaws are numerous and deep: He tortures Jane by repeatedly intimating that he is to marry a local heiress--even disguising himself as a traveling gypsy fortune-teller to suggest it!--but there is no doubting that when Jane is with him she is her fullest self. The book's middle section, before the two are driven apart suddenly, contains some of the best romantic dialogue ever written:

"Because," he said, "I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you--especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs rightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I've a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly."

But Mr. Rochester has a terrible secret--I won't reveal it here, but I will say it forms the basis of Jean Rhys' postcolonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea--and when it is revealed the marriage is quickly derailed. Jane escapes, nearly dying from destitution before finding respite in the home of St. John Rivers, an impossibly virtuous but unfeeling parson. This portion, and the portions before Jane meets Mr. Rochester, are appealing in their way but pale in comparison to Mr. Rochester's presence.

One peculiar thing I have noticed about the book: It has a surfeit of Johns. Jane's stepbrother is a John; her uncle and father both Johns; there is a servant named John; there is St. John Rivers; "Jane" itself is a female variant of "John." Jane Eyre is an explicitly Christian book, and I believe that the recurrence of the name John suggests that Bronte intended it as a meditation of proper servanthood. The saint in "St. John" is St. John the Baptist, whose obedience to God necessitated a life of severe self-sacrifice and who, as the Precursor, became a model for Christ and the fulfillment of God's covenant. St. John Rivers tries icily to goad Jane into marrying him and following him in his missionary work to India, but it is not in St. John's power to define the terms of Jane's faithfulness. In a way, Jane Eyre is the story of the formation of those terms; Jane rankles under the capriciousness of authority in her childhood home and at boarding school because her masters are not so good at being masters as God is, nor, for that matter, are Mr. Rochester and St. John, the novel's principal male characters. Jane has an enormous capacity for love and a servant's heart, but until the very end Bronte refuses to provide a master who is worthy of Jane's unparalleled goodness.

In that way Jane is very un-Austenian, though Mr. Rochester seems very much like he could have been transported in directly from something like Northanger Abbey. I liked Jane Eyre immensely, but I think it's worth noting that Bronte--who thought that Austen lacked a certain moral seriousness--is at her best when she is closest to Austen, and not embracing the tiresome tropes of Gothic literature.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

VALIS by Philip K. Dick

As I wake up I think, I should drive north to the lake; as beautiful as it is down here, with my wife and the back garden and the wild roses, the lake is nicer. But then I realize that this is January and there will be snow on the highway when I get north of the Bay Area; this is not a good time to drive back to the cabin on the lake. I should wait until summer; I am really, after all, a rather timid driver. My car's a good one, though; a nearly new red Capri. And then as I wake up more I realize that I am living in an apartment in southern California alone. I have no wife. There is no such house, with the back garden and the high retaining wall with wild rose bushes. Stranger still, not only do I not have a cabin on the lake up north but no such lake in California exists. The map I hold mentally during my dream is a counterfeit map; it does not depict California…

Who is this wife? Not only am I single; I have never been married to nor seen this woman. Yet in the dreams I felt deep, comfortable and familiar love toward her, the kind of love which grows only with the passage of many years. But how do I even know that, since I have never had anyone to feel such love for?

You may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
You may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
You may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!

-Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads

Aside from something completely narrative-free, like poetry, books like VALIS are the most difficult to review. In some ways, they’re even harder. After all, if I were to describe VALIS in terms of plot, it would probably sound like a fun little sci-fi potboiler: Set in 1970, the story is told through the eyes of one Horselover Fat, whose friends are slowly dying. After one of his closest friends, Gracie, commits suicide, Fat is hit by a mysterious pink laser which provides what everyone wants in light of an inexplicable tragedy: answers. Armed with information, some vague and some specific, Fat attempts to unravel the mysteries of the universe: why is there evil? Who is God, and what is he doing? Is the universe rational? In his search, he comes across all manner of characters, from skeptics and crooks, to prophetic rock stars, eventually uncovering a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of the metaphysical ladder.

That’s a technically accurate description of the plot, but it isn’t really a good description of the novel itself. For one thing, Fat is Philip K. Dick, first implicitly and later explicitly, even though he carries on two-sided conversations with Philip, even taking a trip by himself at one point, which probably qualifies him as a most unreliable narrator. Also, all the plot points mentioned above take up maybe a third of the book’s length. The rest is filled with philosophical observations and strange, pseudo scriptural interludes—in fact, the book contains an appendix of Fat’s “inspired musings”, complete with easy-to-reference verses. Long story short: VALIS can be amazingly pretentious.

With that in mind, it’s even more surprising that there are portions of VALIS that are extremely affecting. Fat’s musings about his dead friend and what her death might mean are touching, and when Fat finds the answer he’s looking for—the meaning of it all—it brilliantly undercuts a lot of the pretension. That is, until another late novel twist that could be interpreted as either extremely joyous or sad. Knowing Dick, it’s probably the latter, but it’s hard to tell.

Besides Dick’s self-identification with Fat, it’s hard to overlook the fact that VALIS is based on a real divine experience he claimed to have had. This basis in fact, particularly that Fat’s Exegesis, VALIS’s version of a Bible, is a fictionalized version of a document Dick actually kept—his attempt to unravel the mysteries of the universe. It feels at times like Dick is writing a religious text—indeed, Fat describes his Exegesis as a new cosmogony—so it’s hard to know how seriously to take things.

At times, VALIS is a slog, but it’s redeemed by some well-drawn characters, particularly Fat’s skeptic friend, Kevin, and some of Dick’s uniquely pitch-black humor. There are also a lot of interesting ideas buried in Dick’s synthesis of Christianity, Gnosticism, Buddhism, and about every other religious system you can imagine, but as a religious work, it ultimately feels a bit empty. On the other hand, read as Dick’s attempt to understand and overcome a serious loss, it’s revealing and poignant. Dick was a disturbed man, and his self-awareness is both VALIS’s strength and its Achilles heel. Reading VALIS is like watching a man slowly lose his mind—does that sound like something you ‘d like?

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Then I'll light the darkness with thoughts of those I love.

I haven't posted on the last few books of the Dark Tower series because I kind of felt combining them in one review would be more efficient and wouldn't take anything away from them. I have finally finished them all, so now here are my final thoughts.

Taking on the task of reading the Dark Tower series is almost an epic undertaking as the story itself: the series spans 7 books and thousands of pages. However, in the end I'd say it's definitely worth it. I'm sure Stephen King's stuff doesn't quite pass muster for true literature buffs, but for the amateur fiction reader his work, and especially this series, is quite enjoyable. As I've probably said before, the tale follows Roland, the last true gunslinger in all of the worlds (for there are other worlds than these) as he searches for the Dark Tower, the center and linchpin of all the worlds. The tower and the beams that hold it up are under attack by the Crimson King (a recurring villain in many of King's other works) and Roland and his ka-tet must try to prevent him from tearing it down, which would basically end existence. Though I wasn't 100% satisfied with the story the entire time, in the end I was very satisfied. Unfortunately there's not a lot more for me to say because I don't want to give anything away, but if you want to discuss the series with me away from the eyes of those who haven't read it, feel free.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

In the annals of opening lines, very few can top the beginning of The Metamorphosis. How can you help but wonder what’s going on when a novel begins with its protagonist turned into a giant bug? Unfortunately, readers who are wondering what exactly is going on are likely to be disappointed. Kafka, one of the founders of absurdism, isn’t too interested in telling us how or why Gregor became a bug. This is the first Kafka I’ve read, but from what I understand, Kafka never was particularly interested in the mechanics of things. In fact, picking out what Kafka was interested in can be quite a challenge, as evinced by the size and variety of analysis his work inspires.

So, plot summary: it’s mostly up there in the opening quote. Gregor Samsa, primary provider in a household that includes his mother, father, and sister, wakes up one morning to find that he’s become something resembling a giant dung beetle. As the novel progresses (such as it does—it’s less than 100pp), his family discovers his malady and their reactions, and his coping, form the core of the narrative.

Initially, Gregor’s family, although frightened of the creature Gregor has become, try to help him. They call for the doctor, who never actually sees him, and they try to make him comfortable. The most accommodating member is his sister, and Gregor’s thankfulness for her small graces—bringing a variety of foods for him to allow him to discover what he likes, talking to him, straightening his room—form the novel’s emotional core. As time goes on, however, the family grows more and more frustrated with Gregor and the way he inconveniences their life. At the same time, Gregor becomes more and more animalistic, caring less and less about the house’s other occupants. Everything comes to a head one night when, entertaining boarders taken in to compensate for the lack of Gregor’s income, Gregor’s sister is playing her violin. The music touches Gregor’s remaining humanity, and he reveals himself to his family at an inopportune time. It’s the last straw.

The Metamorphosis is such a strange absurd piece of work that it’s difficult to know how to react to it. Parts of certainly comical enough, especially in the early going, but Kafka’s descriptions of Gregor’s bug-life are quease-inducing, and ultimately, Gregor’s story is desperately sad. Take this passage, where, in a moment of clarity, Gregor reflects on his wasted life:

In his imagination appeared again, after a long time, his boss and the manager, the chief clerk and the apprentices, the excessively spineless custodian, two or three friends from other businesses, a chambermaid from a hotel in the provinces, a loving, fleeting memory, a female cashier from a hat shop, whom he had seriously but too slowly courted—they all appeared mixed in with strangers or people he had already forgotten, but instead of helping him and his family, they were all unapproachable, and he was happy to see them disappear.

Gregor’s transformation has been interpreted as everything from a mental condition to a metaphor for transubstantiation, but upon this initial reading, what I took away was a sense of alienation. Gregor, in spite of spending his life toiling for his family, never knows them, never spends time with them, pushes everything important to some hazily-defined future, and, with his separation taken to illogical extremes, is now as irrelevant as any other bug.

I mentioned earlier that Gregor’s story is sad, and it is, but the novel itself ends on a bittersweet note: the family realizes that they now have more money than before, since they are all working. They move to a more convenient place, and they are all happy. Gregor and his horrible experience seem to fade into the background by the end of the last page. In a way, I guess, that’s the saddest part of all.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts--

I am sixteen years old now and I dont know what to do and would appreciate it if you could tell me what to do. When I was a little girl it was not so bad because I got used to the kids on the block makeing fun of me, but now I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out on Saturday nites, but no boy will take me because I was born without a nose--although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes.

I sit and look at myself all day and cry. I have a big hole in the middle of my face that scares people even myself so I cant blame the boys for not wanting to take me out. My mother loves me, but she crys terrible when she looks at me.

What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate? Even if I did do some bad things I didnt do any before I was a year old and I was born this way. I asked Papa and he says he doesnt know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins. I dont believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I commit suicide?

Sincerely yours,


I’m not sure what to say about Miss Lonelyhearts; reading (and reviewing) it so soon after Day of the Locust has made a lot of my observations about this book a little redundant. Once again, it takes place in West’s grotesque, hopeless world, with another man, not particularly dissimilar from Locust’s Tod, trapped in circumstances beyond his control.

Miss Lonelyhearts, never given another name, is a man, an advice columnist for an unnamed paper. Started as a joke, the letters—several of them reprinted in full and packed with all manner of depressing minutae in the text—eventually become all Miss Lonelyhearts can think of. He tries to bury his sorrows, turning to religion, sex, bucolic getaways, but can find no relief. Unlike Tod, Miss Lonelyhearts has a soul, a true all-feeling soul, buried too deep for him to reach, even if he wanted to. As he sinks deeper into the morass of his job, his feelings rise to the top, until, during an unwanted tryst with an advice-seeker, he snaps, beats her up, and runs away. His crumbling emotional state (and, it is implied, possibly some physical ailments) lead him to a fevered vision, wherein he speaks to God, who promises to work as his editor and give him proper answers to those who seek his help. Unfortunately, the beaten woman’s husband, Doyle, with whom Miss Lonelyhearts earlier forms possibly the only sincere emotional connection in the entire novel, comes after him. There is violence, of course.

Miss Lonelyhearts is the disturbed fever dream of The Day of the Locust. There are loads of parallels, from Miss Lonelyhearts’s coworkers discussing well-deserved rapes they’ve heard about, to Doyle’s Homer Simpson-like breakdown, to everyone’s inability to make their world a better place. The difference is primarily one of tone: If The Day of the Locust is the world distorted in a funhouse mirror, Miss Lonelyhearts is the mirror itself. Everything is exaggerated, macabre, obscene. The letters, with their realistic depictions of people in desperate situations, are somehow less bleak than West’s hyper-real world, where rape is an acceptable dinner topic, everyone’s a fraud, and a revelation from God is just another way to get killed.

Trains, Travel & Murder

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey are remarkably similar. They both feature recurring detectives, Hercule Poirot for Christie and Inspector Alan Grant for Tey, trains, The Orient Express for Christie and the London Mail for Tey and of course both feature death, murder to be precise.

In Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is returning to London from Syria and boards the train in Istanbul. Due to a crowded passenger load Poirot doesn’t have a berth all to himself until his second night on the train. In the wee hours of his third day on the train Poirot is awakened by a noise that appears to

be coming from the next compartment. When he peers into the corridor to inquire into the matter he hears a voice inform the conductor that “Ce n'est rien. Je me suis trompé” (It's nothing. I misspoke). Poirot returns to bed only to be again disturbed by the ringing of another

passenger’s bell. Unable to sleep Poirot requests a bottle of water and learns that the train has been stranded in snow. Sometime later he is again disturbed by a bump on his door and looks out of his compartment to see a woman in a scarlet kimono scurrying down the passage. Finally able to sleep without being interruption Poirot awakes the next morning to startling news; Samuel Edward Ratchett, the man in the next apartment, was fatally stabbed in his sleep.

Christie, in her slow and somewhat clunky way, guides the little grey cells of her famous Belgian detective through a series of false leads and plots twists until she delivers what is, arguably, one of the most provocative dénouements in the history of detective fiction.

One of the most obvious ways in which Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands differs from Murder on the Orient Express is the quality of her prose. Both stories begin in the morning, but compare Christie’s opening:

It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express. It consisted of a kitchen and dining-car, a sleeping-car and two local coaches.

By the step leading up into the sleeping-car stood a young French lieutenant, resplendent in uniform, conversing with a small man, muffled up to the ears, of whom nothing was visible but a pink-tipped nose and the two points of an upward curled moustache.

with Tey’s:

It was six o’clock of a March morning, and still dark. The long train came sidling through the scattered lights of the yard, gently clicking over the points. Into the glow of the signal cabin and out again. Under the solitary emerald among the rubies on the signal bridge. On toward the empty grey waste of platform that waited under the arcs . . . The London mail at the end of its journey.

While Christie’s prose is certainly sufficient it lacks the power of Tey’s to pull the reader through the story. In The Singing Sands Inspector Grant is on vacation from his stressful job in London and is heading to Scotland for vacation. As Grant is preparing to exit the train the conductor finds the body of a man, which he initially assumes to be drunk. Grant realizes the man is dead but is not drawn to the case until he discovers that the man’s newspaper contains a brief bit of poetry - the singing sands, that guard the way to paradise. These mysterious words haunt Grant all throughout his stay in the Hebrides until he is forced to return to London. He finally lands in Marseilles where he resolves this most diabolical murder.

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.


"Mr. Greener, the bedraggled Harlequin of our caption, is not bedraggled but clean, neat and sweet when he first comes on. By the time the Lings, four muscular Orientals, finish with him, however, he is plenty bedraggled. He is tattered and bloody, but still sweet… His is the final victory; the applause is for him.”

So, a very quick plot summary before the review proper: The Day of the Locust is set in the early years of film, when Hollywood was expanding, moving from talkies to sound, from melodrama to drama, from cultural barometer to cultural thermostat. The novel follows several characters, each pitiful in their own way: Tod Hackett, an aspiring artist who longs to paint Hollywood as it really is; Faye Greener, an aspiring actress who spreads her love, among other things; Homer Simpson, a socially-awkward recluse, in Hollywood for his health, dragged against his will into love with Faye; and an assortment of Hollywood extra types, including the cowboy, the singing child star, the comedian, the oily agent, etc. The narrative is loose, but not flabby—the book is a slim 120pp—and as the lives of these characters intersect, things happen, mostly awful things.

The Day of the Locust is a harrowing read. Once every 10 or so pages, there’s a passage that hits like a kick to the stomach. If it were possible, it would be tempting to read certain bits with eyes closed, cowering beneath a blanket. The characters are not lovable, not light, and their adventures, such as they are, reveal more despair than joy. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a single joyous moment in the entire novel. Tod is a would-be rapist, would-be in a way that makes his inability to follow through almost worse than if he did. Faye is a heartless harpie, cruel to the ones who care for her, desperate for attention and unable to quit acting even when her father dies. Homer is a pitiful cipher: we are told that some men can lust after things and control them, but others, like Homer, must not allow such thoughts—they are like a spark in a field of dry hay. Indeed, that turns out to be true.

There is no glamour in West’s depiction of Hollywood. The stars exist on a different plane from our struggling “heroes”—Gary Cooper is spotted late in the novel, near but completely uninvolved in a major riot—and there are no happy endings. Every single character does despicable things, when they do anything at all. In an amazingly disturbing description of a cockfight late in the novel, West summarizes his character’s motivations in the cruelest way possible.

I know I haven’t said much about the specifics, but they’re devastating. The Day of the Locust is depressing, eerie and affecting in its depiction of humanity without grace, mercy, or hope. It’s beautiful the same way as a mushroom cloud.

Chris's Review

Twelve Angry Men by Sherman L. Sergei

I had a bit of a crisis moment in deciding whom to call the author of this play: The name associated with Twelve Angry Men is Reginald Rose, but Rose's script was for the original television show. This adaptation, which I believe would later become the basis of the final script for the film, is Sergei's--yet Rose's name gets top billing on the book.

So yes, this is a script based on a television show that would later become a movie. That hasn't stopped the school where I work from ordering 400 copies of it and calling it literature, of course, and it rankles me a little bit that we continue to send the message to our students that literary quality doesn't matter.

The good news is that, if you're a student, you miss exactly nothing by watching the film instead of reading the book. You have probably seen it: Twelve jurors are tasked with deciding if a young man from the slums has committed murder by stabbing his father. Eleven of them think it's an open-and-shut case, but the boy's future is spared because the heroic, noble Juror No. Eight insists on pausing to consider the facts again. One by one, he convinces each juror that there is enough "reasonable doubt" to set the boy free.

Really, it's a fairly grim picture not only of the American justice system, but of human nature. What if Eight hadn't been there? Twelve Angry Men has very little faith in the common man's ability to engage in the kind of civic participation that we'd like to believe is a hallmark of the American body politic. These eleven jurors begin the play beholden to their own flawed natures--their impatience, bigotry, pride, cowardice, etc.--and need to be cajoled into doing the right thing. Yet Twelve Angry Men asks us: How many among us are an Eight? One of twelve?

If there is value in teaching this book, I hope it will be that it forces my students to imagine themselves in this situation. Though I love them all, there are not so many Eights among them as they imagine; far too many may see themselves in the prejudice of Juror No. Ten, or the self-defeating meekness of Juror No. Five.

Still, they could probably do that by watching the movie.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Conner

The boy didn't need to hear it. There was already a deep and black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.

Spoilers abound.

Chris read Wise Blood last year, and it stumped him, to use his words. He talks about it at length in his review, and I can’t disagree with him—this is a difficult book that seems completely packed with ideas, many of which seem strong enough to carry a novel themselves. Tying them all together is quite a challenge.

A summary of the plot: We begin following Hazel Motes, a disillusioned former Christian who would now probably be considered a nihilist. He doesn’t believe in Christ, or redemption, or sin. We meet him on the way to a new town, where he meets the novel’s other central characters: Enoch Emery, an 18-year-old looking for a father figure and some direction, Asa Hawkes, a street preacher pretending to be blind, and his daughter, a teenage girl named Sabbath Lily Hawkes. Hazel hears Asa preaching and, offended by his message of Jesus, decides to begin preaching himself, founding a movement he calls the Church of Without Christ. He also decides to seduce Asa’s daughter to prove his commitment to his new beliefs. After preaching for several weeks without a single convert, Hazel’s ministry is co-opted by The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, which employs a Hazel lookalike. Angered by their cynical co-option of his belief system—they don’t actually believe it and are charging members to join—Hazel attempts to sabotage their work, escalating his attacks until he commits homicide. There’s more to the story, but I’m going to halt the summary there.

Enoch has what the novel calls “wise blood”, a sort of mild psychic ability that shows him the tiniest bit of the future and guides his life. There is no particularly straightforward way to tie this to the rest of the narrative, but here’s what I’ve come up with. Early on in their relationship, Enoch tells Hazel that he doesn’t believe in Jesus much, but that he does have his father’s “wise blood” which guides him. I see parallels between the “wise blood” and Christ—that is, as full of Christ figures as Wise Blood is, the titular blood may be one itself.

There are similarities between Enoch’s “wise blood” and Asa’s “spirits” in that both are nearly irresistible and both give seemingly poor guidance: Asa feels led to blind himself, and upon being unable to do so forsakes his faith entirely; Enoch is compelled to steal a mummy from a museum to be a “new Jesus”, which he does, indirectly leading to Hazel’s shift in belief, which seems to be the point on which the novel turns. Looking at Enoch v. Asa in this way brings up an interesting question. That is, Asa’s decision, which seems reasonable, has only negative consequences, while Enoch’s, which seems stupid, may in fact have led to Hazel’s awakening, if not quite his redemption.

There’s a lot here about identity and honesty. No one in Wise Blood is particularly honest. Hazel at first seems to be telling the truth, but there are hints that he’s deceiving himself when he says he doesn’t believe in Christ. His initial reasoning for rejecting Christ is that without Christ, there is no need for belief. Consequently, there is no way he can commit any sin—there’s no sin without an ultimate moral authority, after all—and, as a result, he doesn’t need redemption from Christ or anyone. This is oddly circular and seemingly sincere until, in the closing pages of the novel, Hazel tells his landlady, who is also not what she seems, that he is “not clean”. Additionally, throughout the novel, characters mistake him for a preacher—perhaps ironically since he later becomes one, however untraditional—and both Enoch and Sabbath are convinced that Hazel rejects them because he “only wants Jesus”.

Then there’s the weird stuff, like Hazel blinding himself, in an inverse parallel with Asa, which I guess proves that Hazel’s late-period belief in Jesus was more sincere than Asa’s earlier ministerial zeal. There’s also Enoch dressing up in a gorilla suit, a fairly brutal murder, and Hazel’s landlady, seeming important but not introduced until the last 20 pages of the novel. I feel like there are some nice thematic parallels in some of these storylines, but this review is plenty long already.

The characters all end up in situations that seem fairly ambiguous: Sabbath ends up in an orphanage, Enoch ends up in a gorilla costume, which Chris discusses in depth in his review, Asa disappears to who-knows-where, and Hazel, the protagonist, dies searching—or does he? In some ways, the end of Hazel’s story recalls the ending of The Power and the Glory, because both deal with a protagonist seeking redemption he cannot find, and both end somewhat unresolved. We cannot know if Greene’s whiskey priest will be received into Heaven in spite of his inability to make confession, and we are not told the meaning of Hazel’s ultimate fate.

His final scene is bleak—spoiler, he dies—but there’s a bit of light, both literally and figuratively. The last line in the book pictures Hazel as a “pinpoint of light”, and “the beginning of something [that we] cannot begin”. O’Conner seems to foreshadow Hazel’s eventual redemption—a character states near the beginning of the novel that redemption, once received, cannot be rejected—but then holds the reality of that redemption at arm’s length, where we, like the landlady at Hazel’s deathbed, can see it only as a possible beginning we cannot begin. Hazel cannot escape Christ, the real thing or the flawed substitutes, and O’Conner’s God, as inscrutable as He might be, never stops pursuing. It’s sort of a beautiful picture in such a bleak landscape.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad;
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.
{G.K. Chesterton}

This book came into my hands by a rather entertaining series of encounters. I spotted it once while volunteering at the library, but had no room for pleasure reading at that point in time. I set it aside with a sigh over the probability that it would be forgotten in the pile of books that I have wished to read but have neither the capacity nor the time to remember and read them all. Then, not a few months later, I ran across it again on a bookshelf at a coffee shop and determined that I would stop in again when I had more time. Not even a full day later, a teacher recommended it to our class even as I was copying the name down in my notes to remember it. Of course at that point it was pretty much assured that I would read it. The coffee shop owners were gracious enough to lend it to me and here I am a week later and rather the better for having read it.

Cahill's story begins with the fall of the Roman Empire as it has exhausted its creativity and lives in the memory of greatness with the hollowness of inner decay. As civilization began to shift with great heaves and hurls, reshaping the political geography of Europe through centuries of flames and disorder, Cahill points his readers to the remote western boundary where the last light of the ancients burned on in an unwavering flame. Thanks to St. Patricius, slave turned missionary to the Irish, the works of men like Aristotle, Plato, Homer, and Virgil survived the Dark Ages of thought to stir the minds of another generation. As his converts began to form monasteries, they developed a great love for education and the written word, even going so far as to invent new languages and scripts when they had mastered Latin and Greek. They preserved and copied all of the greats, forming libraries that were in many cases the sole repositories of those works in western Europe. As Roman Catholicism retreated to the last few of the aristocratic upper echelons of society, Patrick's Irish converts were active in preserving and spreading both the sacred and the secular works.

It was a very informative read on a time in society that is often forgotten because it had so few educated and informed people who could document it firsthand. I enjoyed it because I can sympathize with the Irish monks who enjoyed their early church fathers liberally seasoned with Greek philosophers. Plus, history is interesting, and Cahill actually writes about it as a vibrant story rather than a faded tapestry. Kudos to both author and subject.

Monday, October 4, 2010

77 Dream Songs by John Berryman

All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry's side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.

I don't see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.

What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.

- Dream Song 1

I confess, I first learned of John Berryman from Okkervil River’s “John Allyn Smith Sails”. I didn’t even realize he was a poet at the time. Later I heard him referenced in The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations”. Still, I didn’t seek him out because I’m not really into poetry, so there’s that. Long story short, I finally picked up The Dream Songs when I saw the gorgeous recent edition. It turned out to be two separate volumes, 77 Dream Songs and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. This is a review of 77 Dream Songs.

Not being a poetry reader at all, I really have no idea how to approach reviewing a collection of poems. 77 Dream Songs isn’t the easiest introduction either. Even the more lucid poems are full of obscure arcane and the less accessible are almost completely impenetrable without some sort of reference material. That said, just read the poem at the top of this review. If the use of language does nothing for you, maybe Berryman isn’t your poet. I was completely blown away, like, I felt like my head was screwed on backward.

Saying many of the poems are impossible to interpret might make 77 Dream Songs sound like a slog, but it isn’t. Much like abstract lyrics can make a perfect sort of personal sense, or abstract painting can evoke a mood rather than a concrete image, so are the Dream Songs. They form a sort of panoramic tone poem, a fictional biography (that may or may not be autobiography, in spite of Berryman’s denial in his introduction) of Henry, a mysterious man who appears in most of the poems here. The only other recurring character, besides the omnipotent narrator, is a man, unnamed, who always refers to Henry as Mr. Bones and speaks in an exaggerated turn-of-the-century black patois.

We don’t get much in the way of linear narrative. Virtually everything we learn about Henry is couched in Berryman’s complicated, sometimes intentionally garbled, language. There are murmurs of dissatisfaction, bubbling lust (“What wonders is she sitting on over there?”), bleak humor, and an overall view of the world that looks back nostalgically while simultaneously recognizing that nostalgia is essentially unreliable.

Henry, as revealed here, is reclusive, not wanting to reveal himself to the world. Even the narrator recognizes this (“I don’t know how Henry, pried, open for the all the world to see, survived.”), and many of the poems seem to revolve around the paradox of Henry wanting to be part of the world and take what he wants, and his crippling fear that he’ll always be an outsider.

Of course, Henry himself, intentionally or not, does parallel the life of his creator. Berryman sought to be a great poet, like his idol Keats, and he may have succeeded. Unfortunately, his great talent couldn’t overcome his great vices and, like his poetic avatar, he self-destructed for reasons both concrete and abstract.

I cannot remember. I am going away.
There was something in my dream about a Cat,

which fought and sang.

Something about a lyre, an island. Unstrung.
Linked to the land at low tide. Cables fray.
Thank you for everything.