Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike

She felt this would happen but once, this unfolding of herself, and so she was luxuriously attentive to it, as if she were both storyteller and heroine, physician and invalid. In their hours of stolen intimacy, Fengon disclosed to her in the white mirror of his own body, furred and pronged, a self laid up within her inner crevices and for forty-seven years merely latent, asleep. All her unclean places came alive, and came clean. Did she not carry in her veins the warrior blood of Rodericke and of his father, Hother, the vanquisher of Guimon, who had betrayed Gevare and whose live body Hother burned in revenge? Protest had been lurking in her, and recklessness, and treachery, and these emerged in the sweat and contention of adulterous coupling.

John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius is predicated on a major miscalculation: That the story of Hamlet can be told without Hamlet. Or, rather, that a prequel to Hamlet can be written in which Hamlet himself is forced to the periphery, barely mentioned (I don't believe he has any quoted dialogue in Gertrude and Claudius), perpetually away at Wittenberg. The problem with this is not merely that Hamlet is a superior work--which it is, to everything--but that Hamlet is too large to be contained this way. He is too expansive; he commands our attention even when he is not on stage. Hell, he commands our attention when we're reading things that have nothing to do with Hamlet.

Gertrude and Claudius'
neatest trick is that Updike, borrowing from Shakespeare's original sources, Saxo Grammaticus and Francois de Belleforest, splits his prequel into three sections in which the characters are first called by the names Grammaticus gives them, and then Belleforest's, and finally Shakespeare's. So Gerutha in Grammaticus becomes Geruthe in Belleforest and finally Gertrude in Shakespeare; Feng becomes Fengon becomes Claudius; Amleth becomes Hamblet becomes Hamlet; Hamlet's father Horwendil becomes Horvendile becomes--as Hamlet himself subsumes all others--Hamlet senior.

I was first inclined to think that this was a sort of pedantry, but I decided that it has an appealing thematic thrust: The story's progress toward Hamlet is inexorable, and by extension, our principals' progress toward death. Updike's Hamlet is an apocalypse, though a hastily sketched one; the crimes of Gertrude and Claudius are by comparison are minor stuff. Gertrude is a noble, clever woman trapped in a marriage of political convenience. Claudius is a wise, cosmopolitan adventurer unfairly overshadowed by his older brother, and is incited to murder only when his brother threatens to dispatch Gertrude as punishment for their adultery. Here are people whose yearning ought to make them more relatable than Hamlet, whose vengeance looms larger than its cause.

But Updike has too much to overcome to make Gertrude and Claudius work. First of all, he doesn't help himself with flabby discourses on Danish history and geography like this one:

Geruthe and Horvendile paid a patriotic visit to the battlefield of Fotevig, where over a century ago Erik the Memorable had decisively defeated Niels and his son Magnus, who had treacherously murdered Duke Knud the Breadgiver, conqueror of the Wends, in Haraldsted Wood. Magnus fell at Fotevig together with no fewer than five bishops. Erik's victory had been aided by three hundred German armored knights hired for the occasion, a technological innovation which at blow rendered popular levies upon the peasantry obsolete.

Or pointed references to the original, like this one from Corambis, known in Shakespeare as Polonius:

"Without forgetfulness, milady, life would be intolerable. All that we have ever felt or known would come crowding in upon us, like rags stuffed into a bag, as they say happens to unfortunates in the moment of drowning. It is averred that it is a painless death, but only the drowned could tell us with assurance, and they are silent, being so. That is, drowned."

Because his daughter Ophelia drowns in the play. Get it?

But the real issue is that Gertrude and Claudius is incapable of surprising us. We know exactly what will happen: Gertrude will fall in love with Claudius and Claudius will kill the King and usurp the throne. This is, save for a few minor details, the entire plot of Gertrude and Claudius. Gertrude's feelings about her marriage can be surmised without reading them, and there is little about their affair that might capture our interest, especially from an author who might reasonably be called our foremost literary expert on adultery. The novel's most powerful effect is to make us impatient for Hamlet and then to interrupt the narrative before he does or says anything of interest. It may drive us back to the original play--a result of no small worth--but there we find that Updike has little to illuminate.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius

Stupid people always dismiss as untrue anything that happens only seldom, or anything that their minds cannot readily grasp; yet when these things are carefully inquired into they are often found not only possible but probable.

The Golden Ass, or the Metamorphoses, by Apuleius is one of the earliest existing examples of what we would now think of as narrative literature. It’s not quite a novel; it’s more like a short story collection with a more-substantial-than-usual wraparound story. Divided into eleven short “books”, it follows the misadventures of a young man, Lucius, as he pursues his interests: magic, women, and living life.

Every section has at least one interstitial story, some longer and better than others. The most famous of these is Psyche and Cupid, appearing for the first time in Western literature. It’s a beautiful story well-told, and maybe the best part of the book. Other stories generally revolve around violent death or poorly hidden affairs; sometimes there’s magic.

Reading The Golden Ass is somewhat strange. It’s been around for such a long time, and has influenced everyone from Shakespeare, to Cervantes, to Augustine, that reading it sometimes brings on episodes of déjà vu. Its elements have been reappropriated so many times, particularly the central gimmick of the protagonist changing into an animal—in this case, the titular ass—that by all rights, The Golden Ass should be dull and predictable. However, it avoids this pitfall in two ways. First, like Don Quixote, it’s an example of a form in flux, and, as such has no qualms about incorporating poetry, folk tales, songs, author self-insertion in ways that feel almost postmodern—ridiculous, right? Secondly, The Golden Ass is quite a ribald piece of work—Philip Roth can’t hold a candle to the debauchery that takes place in these episodes.

In the last book, which is unfinished, the tone changes as Lucius, desperate for reprieve that seems forever out of his grasp, prays for deliverance from his donkey form or, barring that, death. It’s a beautifully written passage, serious where most of the book is silly, and powerful. I’m sure there’s infinitely more to it than I can cover here—the Latin original is supposedly full of wordplay—but The Golden Ass is still a must-read for anyone interested in the capital-C classics, whatever the language.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

"Hell, boy. At some point, all fathers want to kill their sons. Just like all sons think about killing their old man. THey're too much alike or they're not enough alike. t doesn't matter. What's beautiful is that they don't do it." - Some guy in this book

There's only one problem with L.A. It exists.

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them. – Mark Twain

Every year, I read a book or two that barely qualifies as a book at all. Whether it’s a Christopher Pike novel, a novelization of a video game, or Chuck Palahniuk, there’s always one book that makes me cringe just a little when I see it on my annual list. The thing is, for the most part, these books aren't touted as something they aren't—with the exception of pretty much anything by Palahniuk, I’ve known what I was getting into; I’d just forgotten how depressing a bad book could be.

This year’s bad book award goes to Sandman Slim, the ostensible subject of this post. It follows the titular protagonist, a man who’s literally been to Hell and back, as he tries to track down and kill the former friends who sent him there in the first place. It would be classified, I suppose, as urban fantasy, and it takes most of its imagery from the Bible: Satan, archangels, weird evil angels, actual demons, and some other creatures make appearances throughout. The writing style is a mixture of noir-style toughness and 19-year-old notebook scribbles. The takeaway from this book: Slim is EDGY. Everything in this whole book is EDGY. Slim is on the ball; he realizes that God and the devil are both just screw ups, equally selfish, stupid, and useless. He’s the center of the universe, and since he’s an immoral jerk, well…

It sort of pains me to write those previous paragraphs. Full disclosure: as a Christian, I would have found sections of this book offensive if the whole thing hadn’t been so offensively stupid. It’s never exciting, involving, suspenseful, sad, happy, and, perhaps most damningly, it’s never fun or funny, in spite of Slim’s non-stop stream of EDGY, hilarious bon mots.

So, of course, the real question isn’t “Was this book about a guy who kills angels and stuff good?” but, as Chris asked me, “You knew what this was about and you read it anyway?” It’s a hard question to answer. Movies can be so bad they’re good, but it’s tough for a book to reach that point. Bad books are time consuming and depressing, and after I’ve finished them, I wish I’d spent my time on something else. On the other hand, I feel like there’s some benefit to reading really terrible stuff. For one thing, if you like to write, it gives you something to look at and say, “I could do better than that.” As a reader, it keeps you balanced and gives you some perspective: no matter how much you disliked the last Jane Austen, or even Chuck Palahniuk, book you read, it wasn’t as bad as Sandman Slim. It might also help you (me) to choose more carefully in the future.

Next up: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

They were assembled once more in the dining-room where a fire sparkled weakly in the sunlight.

Henry Mortimer said: "If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practise, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practise which so intensifies life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs."

Memento Mori, if it had not been for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, would probably be now remembered as Muriel Spark's most significant novel. It continues to make itself available to contrarians who would call it, contra Brodie, her masterpiece, and indeed it possesses a kind of fullness, or richness, that her non-Brodie books often seem to lack.

The cast is unwieldy, a panoply of eldlerly figures coming to terms with the end of their lives. All are curmudgeonly, and some downright senile:

"I have quite decided to be cremated when my time comes," said Godfrey. "It is the cleanest way. The cemeteries only pollute our water supplies. Cremation is best."

"I do so agree with you," said Charmian sleepily.

"No, you do not agree with me," he said. "R.C.'s are not allowed to be cremated."

"I mean, I'm sure you are right, Eric dear."

"I am not Eric," said Godfrey.

One by one, each of them begin to receive anonymous phone calls that tell them, "Remember that you must die." This is the memento mori of the title--an allusion to the lone figure that, when a Roman emperor or general would receive a triumph, or victory parade, through the heart of the city, would lag behind him whispering a humbling reminder of his mortality. In Rome it was a check against the ambitions of the powerful, but these characters have only delusions of power, and age and death--by means of spurious wills--threaten to bring masters on equal footing with their servants. No emperors can be found here.

Instead, these phone calls ought to be a warning against pettiness and unscrupulousness: Your last days are a time to make things right. But the old folks of Memento Mori are obstinate, and cling to old jealousies, ancient affairs, bizarre sexual perversions, and insidious blackmail. They obsess over the identity of the caller--who, it is suggested, may have supernatural origins--but only rarely do they ever stop and consider the implications of the caller's message.

Spark was 41 when she wrote Memento Mori, which you might call novelist-young. She persisted, according to Stannard's biography, quite crankily into her late eighties. One wonders, when faced especially with the character of Eric--the spoiled, untrustworthy son of Charmian, a once-successful novelist--whether the novel is something of a vision of Spark's own convalescence. As it is, Spark never mended her own broken relationship with her son Robin, and in the late stage of her life they came very much to resemble Eric and Charmian.

Is the title of the book, in Spark's case, advice unheeded? The characters that deal most positively with the anonymous calls are the ones who are most religious (like Charmian, when her senility wanes), and as such Memento Mori is presented as a defense of Spark's mid-life conversion. But if we can grant Spark some measure of clairvoyance--or perhaps, acknowledging her persistent obsession with control both in life and literature, a considerable measure of self-determinism--it comes also to a recognition of the difficulty of truly setting one's mind on last things.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Room with a View by E. M. Forster

Have you ever noticed that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time - beautiful?

A Room with a View was a strange book. Although its settings are diverse, starting out in Italy and making stops in a couple other countries, much of the story feels like a chamber drama. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine the whole novel playing out on a stage, which would easily hold all the novel’s principles at the curtain call. The conflict is mostly internal, with most of the external action holding significance only because of what we, the readers, know to be happening internally. The big events in the novel—a murder, an unkept secret—are background to the real drama, that of Lucy’s transformation from proper Victorian woman into a more modern type.

The story is simple: young Lucy Honeychurch is staying in Italy with several other people, including her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, strange outsiders Mr. Emerson and his son, George, wannabe novelist Eleanor Lavish, etc. One day, while downtown by herself, Lucy witnesses a murder, passes out, and comes to in George’s arms. This leads, eventually, to a stolen kiss, and then the action moves to England, where Lucy attempts to forget about George through an engagement to a boorish lout, Cecil.


At risk of simply repeating Chris’s review, I think Cecil may be Room’s greatest creation: at first a simple, boorish snob, he becomes suddenly human when Lucy breaks off her engagement in favor of George. It’s as if he goes from a two-dimensional line drawing to a fully realized three-dimensional character, suddenly commandeering our sympathy once he reveals his weaknesses. He leaves the novel, never to return, immediately after his redemption, a perfect gentleman, not a villain at all.

The ending of the book is romantic without being sappy, probably due to its brevity—Forster spends only as much time as necessary to establish George and Lucy’s bond, not letting their romance, which is, pardon the redundancy, romantic, become sappy or unbelievable.

I don’t know what else to say about A Room with a View. It seems like a fairly simple book, , not necessarily thematically—there’s a lot here about religion and art, to begin with, that I haven’t touched on—but there is something skeletal and bare about the novel, not In a bad way, but in a way that’s extremely compact. Like this review.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

So, with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 last week, I decided it was time for me to finish up the Harry Potter series. I was a fairly early reader, picking up the first book right after the second came out, and, up until Order of the Phoenix released, I read them more or less as soon as they came out. Unfortunately, OotP really didn’t do it for me, and I didn’t read The Half-Blood Prince for a year or so after I finished that tome. I started Deathly Hallows soon after it came out, got bored after about 100pp, and told myself I’d get back to it eventually. I finally did.

I share the above to share this: I feel like how much one enjoys Deathly Hallows, especially the first half, is directly proportional to how seriously one takes the story; that is, I always enjoyed Harry Potter as a fun little lark with some dark edges. As the books got more serious, diminishing returns set it—although I enjoyed Half-Blood Prince, it wasn’t nearly as fun as the earlier books for me, especially Goblet of Fire, which is probably my favorite. So, now that I’ve rambled, let me address the actual book.

First, the negatives: The first half of this book was really, deathly (haha) slow. There were huge sections that felt like they could have been seriously condensed, especially the interminable setup for Harry’s escape from Death Eaters early on. Also, this book is SERIOUS. There’s little of the lighthearted humor that characterized the first few books—which makes sense thematically—but I found that it created a distance for me because, as I mentioned earlier, I never thought of Harry Potter as inherently serious. Lastly, there’s a lot of exposition. Most of this takes the form of newspaper articles, excerpts from Dumbledore’s biography, and word of mouth from other characters. There are also conversations that are basically info-dumps—in other words, a lot of telling instead of showing.

Now for the positives: by the end, I’d been won over. I underestimated connection to the characters, and when it all went down in the end, I found the various fallout, including deaths of some important characters, surprisingly effective. A couple long-standing characters get a shot at redemption, and Rowling does a good job at avoiding the various attendant clichés. The final confrontation(s) between Harry and Voldemort and well-drawn, and the entire last half of the book moves very quickly and seamlessly. I was surprised how little navel-gazing there was, pleasantly surprised since that’s basically what turned me off of the series to begin with. I was also impressed with the complexity of the plot—there were a couple times that hewed close to dues ex machine, one of the series’ most consistent problems, but for the most part the story played out organically, using characters and touchstones from throughout the seven books to draw everything to a mostly satisfactory conclusion. I even liked the Epilogue, which, although it was a little cheesy, read to me more like Rowling trying to limit the amount of post-series fanfic and mostly succeeding.

It may sound like I’m damning Deathly Hallows with faint praise, but it was probably the 3rd best book, after Half-Blood Price and Goblet of Fire. It was satisfying in a way that long-running series rarely are, and it hit the right notes when it counted.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Room with a View by E. M. Forster

The contest lay not between love and duty. Perhaps there never was such a contest. It lay between the real and the pretended, and Lucy's first aim was to defeat herself.

I didn't intend it, but A Room with a View pairs nicely with The Ambassadors: Here are two books about people living conventional, oppressed lives who do not understand how stifling their existences are until they visit continental Europe. The actual nations and nationalities don't matter much--Paris isn't nearly so vital to Strether as Chad and his circle are, and for Lucy Honeychurch of A Room with a View, Florence isn't nearly so vital as the young man she meets, George Emerson, whose eccentricities make him both fascinating and a wildly inappropriate match.

Lucy is traveling with her elder cousin when she meets George at a pension house in Florence, where George and his father offer to trade rooms with them so that they can have a view of the river. It is a great kindness but also an impropriety which Forster exploits for great comedy. George continues to be there for Lucy when the "real" Italy threatens to overwhelm her--once, when she is stranded in the Cathedral of Santa Croce without her guidebook, and again when she witnesses a brutal murder in the Piazza Signoria. But when George, overcome with passion, kisses Lucy on a trip to Fiesole, she flees to Rome where she becomes engaged to a dull, critical buffoon named Cecil Vyse.

Forster originated the concept of "round" and "flat" characters and the number of strong, vibrant personalities is one of the most remarkable achievements of A Room with a View. Forster also has a knack for the perfect set-piece or minor detail:

She beheld the horrible fate that overtook three Papists--two he-babies and a she-baby--who began their career by sousing each other with the Holy Water, and then proceeded to the Machiavelli memorial, dripping but hallowed. Advancing towards it very slowly and from immense distances, they touched the stone with their fingers, with their handkerchiefs, with their heads, and then retreated. What could this mean? They did it again and again. Then Lucy realized that they had mistaken Machiavelli for some saint, hoping to acquire virtue. Punishment followed quickly. The smallest he-baby stumbled over one of the sepulchral slabs so much admired by Mr. Ruskin, and entangled his feet in the features of a recumbent bishop. Protestant as she was, Lucy darted forward.

I love this--Lucy's shallow distrust of Catholicism, the mordant humor of the children being blessed by Machiavelli, the silliness of the words "he-baby" and "she-baby." Forster slips through any number of literary modes with great success, from the satirical to the gothic:

Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. "Cinque lire," they had cried, "cinque lire!" They sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly on the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin.

And to the romantic:

He carried her to the window, so that she, too, saw all the view. They sank upon their knees, invisible from the road, they hoped, and began to whisper one another's names. Ah! it was worth while; it was the great joy that they had expected, and countless little joys of which they had never dreamt. They were silent.

In this manifold way Room stubbornly refuses, until we find out whether Lucy will ultimately leave Cecil for George, to commit to either comedy or a tragedy. Cecil is awful: pedantic and cynical, and dismissive of Lucy. But when she breaks off their engagement, he is suddenly and shockingly redeemed and humanized:

There was a pause. Then Cecil said with great emotion:

"It is true."

"True on the whole," she corrected, full of some vague shame.

"True, every word. It is a revelation. It is -- I... I'm not going to worry you. You are far too good to me. I shall never forget your insight; and dear, I only blame you for this: you might have warned me in the early stages, before you felt you wouldn't marry me, and so have given me a chance to improve. I have never known you till this evening."

Our hearts break quite unexpectedly for Cecil. It is sobering: happiness, Forster tells us, is possible for some but it is not possible for all. The novel's conflict is in Lucy, who must learn to be honest with herself about what she both wants and needs, but it is Cecil who is the casualty of this conflict. A Room with a View succeeds on the virtue of this element of honesty, when its final chapters could easily have become cloying or sentimental. It is nice to see that Lucy has come to know herself, and good to remember that not all who do so are happy with what they find.

Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

“I was trying to think who you reminded me of. Somebody who went about strewing ruin and desolation and breaking up homes which, until he came along, had been happy and peaceful. Attila is the man. It’s amazing. . . . To look at you one would think you were just an ordinary sort of amiable idiot–certifiable, perhaps, but quite harmless. Yet, in reality, you are a worse scourge than the Black Death. I tell you, Bertie, when I contemplate you I seem to come up against all the underlying sorrow and horror of life with such a thud that I feel as if I had walked into a lamp post.”

An effective farce is often described as being like clockwork. That is, all the wheels and gears are set in motion, one at a time, working independently but also, at the same time, pushing the other parts of the clock to better things. All these disparate pieces—gears, springs, wires—working together cause something to happen—In the case of the clock, to turn the hands; in the case of the farce, to build to a comedic climax. If this is indeed the criteria, then P. G. Wodehouse is undoubtedly the master of the literary farce. Exercising a writing style that is uniquely British and not too far removed from more mannered writers like Jane Austen, Wodehouse moves his characters like chess pieces, timing their interactions so that they all work together to deliver an appropriate payoff.

The dual lynchpins of Wodehouse’s Jeeves series, of which Right Ho, Jeeves is the second, are the narrator, the somewhat dim Bertie Wooster, and his brilliant, unflappable butler, Jeeves. Wooster essentially serves to set the gears in motion, and Jeeves works as sort of a pendulum, to extend the metaphor, making sure that, ultimately, everything runs in proper time.

The setup of Right Ho, Jeeves is simple: Wooster’s demanding Aunt Dahlia demands that he act as presenter at an awards ceremony to be held on her estate, and, in the parallel plotline, Jeeves is acting as counselor to Gussie Fink-Nottle, a newt-obsessed man who, though lacking social skills, has fallen in love with the strange Madeline, and needs Jeeves help to get everything working smoothly. From there, it gets more complicated, as Wooster forcibly takes over Gussie’s counseling, and manages to mess up everything.

I confess, Right Ho, Jeeves took some time to win me over. By their very nature, farces start out mildly amusing and build; with this in mind, the slow beginning wasn’t bad—Wodehouse has a very pleasant, easy-reading style—but it wasn’t really making me laugh much either. However, the build was impeccable, and by the time an inebriated Gussie is decides to use the awards presentation as a platform to drunkenly attack everyone present, I was laughing out loud.

I wouldn’t say Wodehouse is great literature, but I suspect it’s better than I thought it was initially—after all, haven’t we heard that drama is easy, but comedy is hard? It takes a certain sort of skill to write a funny book, and Wodehouse has it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Ambassadors by Henry James

"Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had? This place and these impressions -- mild as you may find them to wind a man up so; all my impressions of Chad and of people I've seen at his place -- well, have had their abundant message for me, have dropped that into my mind. I see it now."

The Ambassadors frustrated me. Much of this was for the poor reason that it nearly single-handedly derailed my race to fifty. It is long, but not overly so, but it is James at his most intricate and convoluted. Sentences go on for the better part of a page, cluttered with appositive and subordinate phrases. Sometimes I would reread a sentence three or four times and still not be sure what it was saying:

He made no crude profession of eagerness to yield, but he asked the most intelligent questions, probed, at moments, abruptly, even deeper than his friend's layer of information, justified by these touches the native estimate of his latent stuff, and had in every way the air of trying to live, reflectively, into the square bright picture.

That it is a mild example. And yet, I tried to stifle my frustration, seeking what Harold Bloom calls reading's "more difficult pleasures."

But I had other issues. The Ambassadors is the story of Lambert Strether, an American in his fifties who travels to Paris to convince the son of the woman he wishes to marry that he should return home to take over the family business. Strether is so taken with Paris and Chad's circle that ultimately, he advises Chad not to return. There is a lot of fawning over Paris, over Chad, over Chad's friends, such as the beautiful Madame de Vionnet, and the earnestness nearly overwhelms. But it seemed to me that there was very little about Chad or Madame de Vionnet to fawn over, and so it is difficult to share in Strether's enthusiasm.

My old English teacher advised me that the secret is to "live in Strether's head." Fair enough: It isn't necessary to fall in love with Madame de Vionnet, only to fathom the way that Strether does. Indeed, most of The Ambassadors takes place there, and the narrative distance it creates from the other characters is part of what I found disaffecting. Perception is all:

He stopped, he looked back; the whole thing made a vista, which he found high melancholy and sweet -- full, once more, of dim historic shades, of the faint far-away cannon-roar of the great Empire. It was doubtless half a projection of his mind, but his mind was a thing that, among old waxed parquets, pale shades of pink and green, pseudo-classic candelabra, he had always needfully to reckon with. They could easily make him irrelevant.

This is striking, and highly ironic: nothing could make Strether irrelevant in this novel; he is all.

My teacher's advice was good; I appreciated the novel more when I consciously tried to dismiss the need for things like objects and descriptions and plot. By losing myself in Strether--which I was at first resisting--I came to a point where I found the novel's final third, in which Strether has to contend with his own conflicting desires about the next phase of his life, quite affecting. Even still, I think I might abstain from late-period James for a while.

Friday, November 19, 2010

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

"But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony--Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?"

The front of my copy of All Quiet proclaims it to be, “the best war novel of all time.” Now that I’ve read it, I’m not sure I agree—I’d put The Things They Carried above it, for one—but it is an easy-to-read, yet poetic, novel that manages to capture the brutality of war from a perspective that’s often neglected, that of the losers.

All Quiet is narrated by Paul, a German infantryman during World War I. This in itself was fairly interesting—as important as World War I was, as much as it defined a generation, it’s been largely overshadowed by World War II, both in the public mind and in terms of art. Everyone knows the Nazis were the bad guys in WWII; far fewer could describe the base conflict in the Great War. But I digress.

Paul is a pleasant, if somewhat unaffected narrator. Most of his observations toe the line between dryly clinical and deeply personal. It’s an interesting tone that’s difficult to capture in an excerpt, but one which serves the novel well, keeping it appropriately personal and connected as things get worse and worse for Paul and his fellow soldiers.

The most impressive feat All Quiet accomplishes, I think, is the way in which it inverts our sympathies. Paul is a German, and, as an American, I should logically be hoping that he loses, but—especially ironically, since we all know how the war ended—I never reached that point. Paul presents Germans, Frenchman, and Russians—no Americans get facetime in the book—as simply people, not as enemies or ghouls. The starving Russians in the prison camp are presented as sympathetically as the starving Germans at base camp. This is the overwhelming observation I took away from All Quiet, aside from the obvious “war is hell”: art allows us to see life through the eyes of the other. Movies can do this too, but books are somehow more convincing to me—there are no German military uniforms to serve as a visual reminder of sides. Instead, there is a deep cast of characters, composed of humans rather than weaponized robots, who, as Paul states late in the novel, could, if the right people were to sign a paper, be fighting with and for the men who were their enemies only moments before.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rabbit Redux by John Updike

Three classes behind his, Peggy Gring had gone to high school with Rabbit and had seen him when he was good, had say in those hot bleachers screaming, when he was a hero, naked and swift and lean. She has seen him come to nothing.

I read, but didn’t review, Rabbit, Run, last year. It follows Rabbit Angstrom, aged 26, as he lives his post-high school life, tries, and fails, to make his marriage to his high school sweetheart work, and suffers some pretty heavy-duty heartbreak. It’s a tragic book, and Rabbit is a tragic character, both unique and universal—he’s his own man, but the narrative of Rabbit, Run is a universal chronicle of one man’s failure to live up to whatever potential he has. It’s also an exercise in both character and reader debasement, disturbing and moving in equal part.

Rabbit Redux takes place 10 years later, with much of the cast returning, picking up where Run left off, with Rabbit, in the aftermath of the tragic event that closes Run, trying—and once again, failing—to shape his life into something that makes him less miserable. After discovering his wife is having an affair with a co-worker, George Stavros, Rabbit’s life again goes off the rails. His wife leaves him, and he takes in a young female runaway, Jill, and her “friend”, a black drug dealer named Skeeter. Things don’t go well.

The title. Rabbit Redux, speaks to a restoration, and, in the end, there is a restoration of sorts. It comes at a cost, of course, and most of Redux doesn’t seem redemptive at all. If anything, Rabbit is a bigger jerk than in Run, more confused, volatile, misogynist, and, adding a new wrinkle, racist. He descends into drug use and, regarding Jill, what could easily be construed as sexual abuse, and, frankly, is pretty reprehensible. It speaks to Updike’s skill that Rabbit still feels human and, in the end, pitiful, if not exactly sympathetic.

Parts of Redux are hard reading—the bleakness rarely lets up, and there’s a dearth of reader surrogates. Updike dares us to sympathize with Rabbit, the cruel screw-up, as he watches those around him collapse. And watch, he does; Rabbit’s defining characteristic is his passivity, his impotence. He is acted upon and around. Even in his seductions, which in Run were at least initiated by Angstrom himself, are thrust upon him by others. He allows terrible things to happen under his roof, allows his wife to leave when she all but tells him she wants him to fight for her, lets his son do as he pleases. In the end, even Rabbit’s redemption, such as it is, is a sad, passive affair, as he is restored, not by his own actions, but by the actions of a woman he has wronged.

In the end, the title ends up being a cruel irony: Rabbit’s restoration at the end of the novel only restores him to less than the state he was in at the beginning. He is renewed only in the sense that his situation has changed, for the worse—the man in the middle is the same as always, growing older as the world revolves around him. Rabbit stifles every attempt at epiphany, never striving to be a better man, drowning in his own confusion and pity, kept from the deepest depths by the outstretched hands of the people he hurts.

One more thing: I don’t know if it comes through in this review, but Rabbit Redux is a very strange, very adult book. It’s disturbing, creepy, and can be kind of disgusting. Let the buyer beware.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin

“This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them killed — but they continued to play anyhow.”

The quote above is actually from A Scanner Darkly, not Divine Invasions (not be confused with The Divine Invasion, a novel by Dick), but it seems like such an appropriate summation of PKD’s life story that I couldn’t leave it out. As the title indicates, Divine Invasions is a biography, unauthorized, of one Philip K. Dick, author, counterculture hero, drug addict, schizophrenic, possible misogynist, hypochondriac, possible genius. But for those who don’t read past the first paragraph, here’s my summation of Divine Invasions: You can learn nearly as much about PKD from his novels as you can from this book, and the man who emerges is both fantastical and sort of terrible.

I try to avoid personal anecdotes in these reviews, but it seems appropriate to place myself somewhere in the pantheon of PKD fandom. I’ve read two of his novels, A Scanner Darkly and VALIS, seen one movie based on his work, Minority Report, and few short stories. I wouldn’t say I was the target audience for this book, but after reading VALIS, I was curious about the man behind it.

PKD was born in Chicago in 1928, along with a twin sister, Jane, who died six weeks later. Dick’s father, Edgar, left his mother when he was young, and thoughout the rest of his life, PKD’s contact with his father was minimal. His relationship with his mother was strained, running hot and cold. He began writing fiction while still in middle school, and by the time he was in his late 20s, he was working full time as a writer, barely eking out a living in the newborn gutter of science fiction. After several marriages, a lot of drugs, and a volume of work that makes the aspiring author shrink to think of it, he died of a stroke in 1982.

Biographies are tough to review because it’s hard to condense someone’s life down to the bare bones without sounding like an obit, but I’d like to focus on what was both the most fascinating aspect of PKD, the man, and the dullest of Divine Invasions: the visions. In my review of VALIS, I go into some detail concerning the imaginary cosmology of Horselover Fat, the novel’s protagonist who is also PKD. I didn’t realize, however, that Fat’s visions in VALIS were not fictionalized at all. They were taken whole cloth from Dick’s largest (unpublished) work Exegesis, which was over 3000 pages long at the time of his death, and was, in my opinion, the chronicle of a man slowly losing his grip on reality.

Divine Invasions goes into some detail on the content of the Exegesis—the final 3rd of the book is mostly dedicated to it--and while it’s interesting in theory, after a while, it gets to be a bit of a slog. Sutin will quote a section, explain how it related to PKD’s life, and speculate on whether or not Dick was actually learning about the ultimate truth or if he was just crazy. Perhaps an interesting book could be made out of this. Unfortunately, Divine Invasions is not it. The last 3rd starts well, but gets bogged down in this repetitive pattern it never really breaks out of. It’s interesting to read about the bizarre things that happened in PKD’s life; it’s less interesting to read about how he thought he caused it while possessed by the spirit of the prophet Elijah.

The other issue I have with Divine Invasions is one of tone. Sutin is clearly a huge fan of PKD’s work, and he makes this clear from the beginning. As a result, portions of the book read almost like a hagiography, with Sutin using Dick’s fixation of his sister’s death, his volatile relationship with his mother, et al. to justify, in part, some of the stupid or just plain malicious PKD did, like beating at least two of his wives. This might be ok, except Sutin seems to want to have his cake and eat it too—although he admits Dick might be crazy, and therefore not entirely to blame for his less forgivable episodes, he also wants to attribute some amount of veracity to Dick’s ever-changing visions. Brief consideration near the end of the novel, where Sutin mentions possible mental conditions that could have caused Dick’s visions, don’t counterbalance the suggestion throughout the rest of the work that PKD was more than a troubled soul—he was some sort of sci-fi prophet.

Divine Invasions isn’t terrible. It’s well-written and Dick’s life was certainly interesting. Ultimately though, it seems a little pointless—you can read about PKD’s crazy life on Wikipedia, his visions in VALIS, and his drug addiction in A Scanner Darkly, and probably enjoy yourself more. Why not get the information from the man himself? It’s not like he tried to hide who he was.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

"Mr. Smithson, what I beg you to understand is not that I did this shameful thing, but why I did it. Why I sacrificed a woman's most precious possession for the transient gratification of a man I did not love." She raised her hands to her cheeks. "I did it so that I should never be the same again. I did it so that people should point at me, should say, there walks the French Lieutenant's Whore--oh yes, let the word be said. So that they should know I have suffered, and suffer, as others suffer in every town and village in this land. I could not marry that man. So I married shame."

The basic story is fairly common: A man meets Mrs. Right, only later to discover Mrs. Even-Righter, and is forced to choose between the promises he has already made and those he yearns to make. The man here is Charles Smithson, a man of leisure and an amateur paleontologist in Victorian England, engaged to a young girl named Ernestina. But when Charles visits Ernestina's home of Lyme, on the British coast, he unexpectedly falls in love with Sarah Woodruff, a disgraced loner who sacrificed her virginity to a French naval officer who shipwrecked nearby. Charles is thoroughly a product of his times--intrigued by Marx, obsessed with Darwin, sexually prudish--but Sarah's misdeed is a revolt against Victorian mores and a claim to an ethical identity not limited to social constraints, and that too is her appeal for Charles.

The French Lieutenant's Woman is an exercise in sustained anachronism. It operates in simultaneous modes, one Victorian, and one modern, in which the narrator frequently provides asides noting how different Victorians were, or remarking that, if Sarah were alive 100 years later, we might say that her brain was like a computer. In these moments we are appropriately jarred, and begin to see the stage hands. If that weren't enough, the narrator happily reminds us that the whole thing is an invention:

It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live. When Charles left Sarah on her cliff edge, I ordered him to walk straight back to Lyme Regis. But he did not; he gratuitously turned and went down to the Dairy.

And yet the narrator also tries to maintain the pretense that these are historical figures, and he has learned about them through various documents and records. Naturally, we begin to see him as a construct, too. A superficiality results, a semipermeable sheen that makes it difficult to buy into Fowles' attempts to make us feel strongly for these characters. How can we, when they are so overtly literary?:

She reached up and touched a branch of the hawthorn. He could not be sure, but she seemed deliberately to press her forefinger down; a second later she was staring at a crimson drop of blood. She looked at it a moment, then took a handkerchief from her pocket and surreptitiously dabbed the blood away.

As a symbolic gesture, it serves a couple purposes: One, it reifies Sarah's pursuit of self-injury and her accompanying flippancy. Two--and this one is perhaps more subtle, or delayed in its full significance--it is the image of penetration and the loss of virginity. As a signifier of character, it fails utterly; clearly the narrator-writer here is too much in control and not the other way around. This "Charles walks where he wants" business isn't fooling anybody. For god's sake, the thing has two separate choose-your-own-adventure style endings!

For the most part, The French Lieutenant's Wife seems inert for these reasons. Despite the copious research Fowles has put in and his dogged efforts to examine the more paradoxical elements of Victorian living, his image of the Victorian psyche is self-consciously false. It lays little claim to speak for history, and less for modernity; it's like a maze that circles upon itself, and not a complex one at that.