I have limited experience with Dave Eggers, so I have trouble comparing this novel to his other work, but I really enjoyed it. I was extremely surprisI have limited experience with Dave Eggers, so I have trouble comparing this novel to his other work, but I really enjoyed it. I was extremely surprised to see how poorly it was received. It is an odd novel, that’s for sure, told exclusively in dialogue. The ultimate exercise in “show, don’t tell.” For such a restriction, Eggers did an excellent job creating a setting. I had a clear picture of the entire setting, and even though I occasionally had trouble telling what time of day it was, the sensory details were all there in my head. Further, I’d say that I had equally clear pictures of the characters, which was a common complaint from critics. Particularly with the main character, I could get as far as describing his clothes and facial hair.
If you ask me, I think this was poorly reviewed because it didn’t resonate with a lot of people. The position Thomas is in feels very familiar to me, as a young white male who grew up in a middle class family. Thomas is ultimately missing an existential purpose. There is tension between a lot of different stresses and pressures. On the one hand, Thomas is victim of circumstance. His home life was out of his control, and he suffered under his mother’s string of boyfriends and her own negligence. He was, arguably, sexually abused as a kid. On the other hand, however, he still had the ability to make his own choices. Making a scene at the hospital and trying to burn it down cannot be excused by any childhood malady. This question of how much is within or without our control is the central question of the novel, in my opinion.
Thomas’ first victim, the astronaut Kev, is the anchor that his argument rests upon. Kev could have been the victim of his circumstance. Instead of abandoning his dreams as a kid after difficulties in his family, he stuck with it and became an astronaut. Despite his hard work and pulling himself up by his bootstraps and so on, he still lost the ability to get on the space shuttle because of NASA’s lack of funding. Kev is the guy who could have gone wrong, but didn’t, and was still made a victim of the man.
Don, the invisible presence that seems to haunt Thomas, is the opposite. He made bad choices despite what he had going for him. His death by the police’s excessive force was wrong, but it was ultimately still his choice. Part of the mystery of the novel is that we cannot truly know what happened to Don. We can never know if he was truly a threat or if the use of force was truly excessive. All we can do is compare him to Kev. In the end, neither got what they wanted.
I think that Thomas is the victim of Plato’s “Great Fiction,” that anyone can do what they want if they put their minds to it. That is simply not true, no matter how many times our generation has been told. I don’t know what Thomas was expecting, and he doesn’t either. Whatever it is, it wasn’t this. He’s caught between people telling him that he’s not a victim, being legitimately victimized, hearing the Great Fiction, and realizing that it’s been a lie. Everything has just been so vanilla, so dull, so boring, but efforts to change it are quashed by unseen forces higher up on some unseen chain of command.
It’s a tough thing to describe without sounding like an asshole, but I think Eggers does it. Thomas just doesn't “get it.” I personally believe that he can make the choices he wants, but I do completely feel his struggle. The general sense that something, probably a sense of meaning and purpose, is missing. Being pulled in so many different directions by so many people. Facing this faceless bureaucracy that everyone else seems to be a part of. Public figures don’t have your best interests at heart, anyone can be kicked out of anywhere at an accusation of insanity, parents don’t put their kids first, an accusation of rape is just as harmful as a conviction, groups can stick together to mask the truth etc. etc.
In the end, Eggers is describing a hole, a nothingness, and if you don’t have that hole in yourself, then you can’t get it. Well, I don’t “get” this world, but as a result, I do “get” this book. All of these ideas are coming out of a novel constructed of strictly dialogue. I think that’s a hell of a book. ...more
Well, you can’t write a review of The Shining without comparing it to the movie, so let’s get that out of the way first. I love Stanley Kubrick, and IWell, you can’t write a review of The Shining without comparing it to the movie, so let’s get that out of the way first. I love Stanley Kubrick, and I loved The Shining for years before I read the book. I know that Stephen King doesn’t particularly like the film, and I can understand why now. A lot of the themes were changed, a lot of content was removed, and the ending is drastically different. It’s a very personal novel for King, so I can understand why he wouldn’t like the adaptation. Honestly, I don’t have much sympathy for him. Any author would give their life to have their novel adapted by Stanley Kubrick. And regardless of his personal feelings for his own book, the Shining is a phenomenal movie. It’s different enough that I don’t think it diminishes the book at all. Much in the same way Peter Jackson made a good adaptation of LotR by sticking to the core of the story and changing/deleting in ways to support that core, so did Kubrick stay true to what made The Shining a good novel, and made changes that would be better for the film.
So, now that that’s done, here’s my review of the novel itself.
I’m not very familiar with King’s writing, but I was surprised by a few things. It really was a page turner, honestly. I guess I was expecting it to be lower quality. That’s probably my own prejudice against authors that churn out work as quickly as he does. Quantity does not mean quality, but at least in this case, King definitely did achieve quality. His characterization was very strong. I had clear pictures of every character in my head, and they didn’t always coincide with the film, which is a really amazing achievement. I think Scatman Crothers and Jack Nicholson will always be those characters in peoples’ minds, but they were just so damn perfect that I think that’s totally fine. The other characters, Danny, Wendy, and Ullman (Al, too,) were extremely well drawn, and remained wholly separate in my head from the actors in the film.
King’s descriptive abilities are well known, and I’d say rightful so. He created a strong sense of claustrophobia. The family’s quarters feel dangerously small and exposed by the end. The Overlook itself is perfectly described in its isolation, which is easy to do with big snowstorms, but I felt the isolation on Closing Day, weeks before snow fell. However, I do feel that it lacked a sense of simultaneous agoraphobia, which is what I think he was going for. I didn’t feel lost in the hotel. It seemed a lot like the Wyndham hotel I worked at in Gettysburg. Everything seemed like straight shots off the lobby. I got the sense that it was a big hotel, but there is an important difference between big and labyrinthine. Creating that tension between the isolation, the maze, and the close quarters is an extremely difficult task, and I don’t think less of King for not doing it perfectly, but I definitely noticed.
Ultimately, the novel can rest its laurels on its horrifying honesty. It’s hard for me to say how I would have felt if I hadn’t known about King’s life ahead of time, but the novel just felt like it was totally autobiographical, which it was. The Shining was King exploring his own feelings toward his own addiction. That’s part of writing, right? Everything is autobiographical at a certain level. But this was noticeably so, and that’s not necessarily a compliment. There were times when I felt removed from the action, because I was considering King’s own life, rather than Jack Torrence’s. But still, for any weakness this might have created, particularly around Jack’s character, it was a tremendous boon for the honesty of the story. The real horror here isn’t the ghosts in The Overlook, it’s the reality of alcoholism. King pulls no punches about Jack’s violence toward those around him, his family, and himself. We can see and hear and nearly smell the beatings Jack’s father gives to his mother, and the similar experiences Jack has with Danny and Wendy. We can feel Jack’s fear, and can later feel Danny’s just as strong. This is something I was not expecting. I supposed that blood and guts were a necessary part of King’s repertoire, but I didn’t expect it to be from such non-supernatural sources.
The relationships between the family members are described just as well as the horror of addiction. We can feel the tension between Jack’s violent tendencies and his very genuine love for his family. That’s tough to do. Like all humans, Jack is big enough to hold two contradictory emotions within himself. He truly loves his wife and son, and truly hates himself. He truly believes in his own infallibility, and truly believes all his problems are Wendy’s fault. And Wendy’s contradictions are just as well crafted. She too truly loves Jack, and is truly afraid of him. It is very telling that when Jack descends to the depths of insanity, she keeps telling Danny that the thing attacking them is not truly Jack, it is The Overlook, and I think she really believes. Jack is a deeply flawed man fighting for goodness. The attacker is the hotel. (Side note – Even as I write this, I question my own analysis. Does Wendy tell Danny that the attacker isn’t truly Jack because King wants to be relieved of fault for his own alcoholism? Is this passage more of a form of wish fulfillment, that he could act on his alcoholic urges while still blaming them on an external force? I can’t tell what is good story telling and what is wish fulfillment.)
Probably the major stumbling block I see in The Shining is its length. Obviously, I have no problem with long books, but The Shining just seemed to drag on and on. Danny had too many seizures/premonitions, it took too long to admit that something supernatural was happening in The Overlook, we spent too much time with Dick trying to get up to the snow surrounded hotel. I found the entire idea of the topiary animals coming to life to stalk Danny and Jack, and later to defend the hotel, just a little tired. That idea has to have been more fully explored in earlier works by some other author. They didn’t match the novel at all, if you ask me. Imagining these giant green, leafy lions walking around doesn’t match the blizzard isolation that King spent so much time creating. What I enjoyed about the film was that almost everything could be explained as non-supernatural, so alcoholism truly became the villain. In the novel, that’s not as true. However, everything supernatural that did occur was related to the hotel and its past. The building was slipping through time, back and forth, and the ghastly residents of the hotel were not so much ghosts as they were psychic residue that broke free from our normal time line. The topiary animals really didn’t have anything to do with the crimes committed in The Overlook in the past. I found them unnecessary and unconvincing and out of place.
So all in all, yes, I liked the novel. King did a lot of difficult things very well. It faltered only at a bit of over indulgence you would expect from a young, gifted, inexperienced writer. In a novel so dominated by so few characters, it is obviously important that those characters be perfected, and King got them pretty damn perfect. It works as a horror novel, a classic haunted house story, but also succeeds in creating the most lasting, psychologically disturbing horror through a distinctly non-supernatural source: alcoholism. I think that’s a great achievement. ...more
Donna Tartt’s novel started off as an obvious 5-star novel for me; the perfect thing to break a long streak of lackluster prose I’ve been suffering thDonna Tartt’s novel started off as an obvious 5-star novel for me; the perfect thing to break a long streak of lackluster prose I’ve been suffering through lately. By the middle, it was a solid 4-star, but still had me feeling great. By the end, I can confidently rate it a 3-star. What went wrong?
First, if I have to read “It’s not a WHOdunit, it’s a WHYdunnit!” one more time, I’m going to flip out like a ninja and kill somebody. From the first sentence, the audience knows that the narrator is part of a small group of people who killed another member of their social circle. It’s true that we don’t completely understand why he is murdered for a couple hundred pages, but to say that this is a mystery novel at all is certainly incorrect. It’s more similar to Crime and Punishment (a comparison that is not lost on the well-read narrator.) The novel is full to the brim with guilt, even in the opening pages when the murder is still months away.
The characterization of the narrator is skillfully done from the beginning. His early life as an unwanted anomaly in a blue collar, mediocre family is in some ways simple and perhaps over done, but Tartt nevertheless makes him relatable, even though it is his own cold, detached voice describing it. He begins college as a complete poser, a second rate actor, at best, surrounded by the real deal. We see, as time goes on, however, that the opulent walls constructed by the other students are nothing more than elaborate facades covering the same shameful laziness, greed, haughtiness, fear, and superiority complexes that the narrator hides behind. The revelation that the untouchable gods are no more than Men Behind the Curtain is expertly done by Tartt, especially as it occurs within the first few months of college. The short time frame made the entire experience more realistic than less, and I applaud Tartt for depicting that part of the college experience so well. Whether high class or low, it doesn’t take long for the walls to fall. Now, all of that being said, I was occasionally caught off guard when I thought I had understood a character clearly and I was incorrect. The physical descriptions of the characters is not clear, and when they were occasionally mentioned, they were radically different than the ideas I had in my head. This led to more than one confusing moment as I wondered who was actually speaking, and to whom the speaker was actually referring. In particularly, I never had a good understanding of Francis (either in his physical description or his character traits, honestly,) which is totally unacceptable in a novel so focused on the interplay of a relatively small number of characters.
The plot is a bit weak, but it was obviously the author’s intention to write a story more focused on the subtleties of character action than big, sweeping events. Still, there are moments where the plot feels like it is happening just as a vehicle to learn more about these characters, rather than unfolding in an organic way. I was probably only 90-95% convinced that Bunny “needed” to be murdered. That’s damn close to perfect, but there was still a grain of doubt that said they could have figured out a way to avoid his death. Further, I’d say that quite a few things were easily guessable. As our narrator enters this group of well-established friends, they hold quite a secret from him. I think the secret was somewhat obvious, and felt a little let down at its revelation. The ultimate conclusion of the novel was not hard to see coming, which, mixed with the lackluster second half, was a major disappointment.
The biggest issue of the novel, however, is in the vast difference between quality of the first and second part. The first part of the novel, from the introduction of the narrator to Bunny’s murder, was engrossing. It pulled you in and pulled you along. You wanted to know the secrets of this group (even if they seemed a little obvious, as I stated.) Frankly, I found it hard to put down. The second half of the novel deals with the aftermath of his murder, both in the actions of the characters and the guilt that weighs on them. This is where the book drags.
First, the actions of the characters, or “plot.” With the exception of a couple flurries of action at the end, very little happens in the second half. In particular, an extremely extended chapter detailing the disastrous funeral of Bunny could have been dealt with in a couple paragraphs, if not simply removed in its entirety. There is a lot of the narrator walking around town, looking for his friends and not finding them, having semi-cryptic conversations, and feeling ill. The entire thing felt like a dénouement, which would be alright if it hadn’t been stretched out to the same length as the first part. When the “plot” finally happens, it is an explosive bolt which, rather than being made more powerful by the long lead up to it, only feels confusing and disorienting as a result.
Second, the emotional state of the characters, or the “guilt.” What I really liked about Tartt’s writing in the first part is that it is infused with guilt, even before we know exactly what has happened. Ironically, however, now that the murder has occurred, the narrator seems to feel little guilt. He spends little time regretting the murder, wishing he could have stopped it, or thinking how things might have been different. We get easily expected reactions from cold, calculating Henry, emotional Francis, and alcoholic Charles, but the narrator himself seems far more interested in the emotional states of his friends than his own. Now, I recognize that this could be an intentional effort on the part of the author to further prove that these people are all antisocial sociopaths with little ability to emotionally connect with others (this argument is bolstered by a few sentences in the epilogue,) but if it was intentional, it was very inexpertly done. If we are meant to believe that he is antisocial, why is the first part so laden with guilt? Even if he is a liar, he still tells us that he feels guilty, and in fact his actions do seem obviously led by that guilt, but we just never feel it. I don’t know exactly what the author intended here, but I feel confident that it wasn’t this.
The Secret History is still a strong novel, even though I have a lot of negative things to say about the second half. Especially as a debut novel, it reads much more like a classic than a contemporary novel, and I mean that to be a compliment. The novel suffers from inexperience, but it is still a compelling story about the lives of engrossing characters, and I can confidently say “I like it!” thus earning it a 3 star rating. ...more