At the risk of writing a gushing, kneejerk non-review in the immediate flush of finishing, I think ... I think ... this is the one.
You can have your l...moreAt the risk of writing a gushing, kneejerk non-review in the immediate flush of finishing, I think ... I think ... this is the one.
You can have your lighthouses and your dalloways - they are (indisputably?) more literary, more artful (I write that; I don't know if it's true). And for all the blurb writers' condescending labelling of this one as more accessible - gasp! - I will accept that there is just simply something I don't get about those others - get in my heart, that is. Get at a visceral level.
I like them a lot. I will re-read them - particularly To The Lighthouse, which needed more of my attention than I gave it at the time.
But this one. Filled to the brim with whimsy and poetry. Cheeky and satirical. Funny, funny, funny. So light-hearted and filled with joy and self-deprecation, but no less intelligent for it. Structurally extraordinary - think of it: Dalloway tried to pack all of life into one day; this turns that on its head and says - the writer can't ever get life on the page without having lived life, lives ... two thousand and fifty-two of them! Four hundred years' worth!
As it comes roaring to a close and into the present, it almost made my heart burst, it did.
This is the one that makes me wish I knew her. This is the one that makes me mourn her loss. (less)
First off, I find the whole notion of the monarchy - any monarchy - absurd. And also, despite being a citizen of a Commonwealth nation with Her Royal...moreFirst off, I find the whole notion of the monarchy - any monarchy - absurd. And also, despite being a citizen of a Commonwealth nation with Her Royal Majesty's mug plastered all over my bills and coins, the Union Jack incorporated into my provincial flag, and a mom who dragged me out of bed at 4 a.m. to watch Lady Diana, Princess of Wales walk to her doom - err, groom - I am not, nor have I ever been, a monarchist.
I honestly don't remember what kind of history I was taught in school, but the Royal Lineage (aren't you supposed to capitalize everything to do with Them? or is that just God?) wasn't, as I recall, on the curriculum or more likely, I wasn't paying attention if it was.
So - entering this book - tea-soaked brain and lover of the superfluous 'u' in labour, favour, rigour, honour aside - I was a blank slate. All I know of Henry VIII is that he had and had killed a lot of wives and you need a big ole' turkey leg as a prop if you're planning a Hallowe'en costume.
I loved Wolf Hall. And, I'm going to talk about why, but let me start with the caveat that Simon E's review (which convinced me to read this) and also Clif H's and David G's will give you more and better insights into a lot of what makes this book so fabulous, i.e., the nuance and energy of the writing, the detail and precision of it, and - in short - what it's about.
'Coz all that is important, but while I cared about it (and especially, the knotty problem of the non-specific third-person, which I *will* comment on shortly), that's not what mattered to me.
Thomas Cromwell mattered (matters) to me.
So I'm going to talk about character - and specifically Thomas Cromwell - and that's pretty much all I'm going to talk about because for me: he was the book; the book was him. It's as though Mantel had to wrestle him onto the page, he's so big. I totally understand - as pointed out in The Atlantic's recent blurb about Bring Up The Bodies - why she decided to extend this book into a series - and ended up needing three books to get through his life.
She can't leave the guy. And I didn't want to, either.
Now - here's where my lack of English history comes in: I have no idea who he is, who he really is (does anyone?) nor have I read anything else about him, biographical or fictional. Although I was provoked to learn more about him at about the point where Mantel started to hint around at him getting remarried and I wondered, to whom? among the lucky dames swirling about him, all of whom seemed eager to get a piece of the mighty fine Mr. Cromwell, even though he "looks like a murderer."
Mantel portrays him as a man of massive charisma, a 16th-century James Bond, smooth, suave, eminently capable and a little dangerous, his vast knowledge stemming from sources unknown but slightly shady. Cromwell can judge the quality of a Turkish rug, spatchcock a songbird, and kill a man with a single knife twist all before cocktail hour and without breaking a sweat.
In terms of seeking more in the way of biography (with some need to reconcile Mantel's portrayal with reality - but, I now think, why?) I only went as far as wikipedia. There, I learned with some sadness what eventually became of him. Ceridwen said somewhere about reading books about The Plague that it's always so horrible because you know how it's going to end, that everyone is going to die, but it still hits you like a ton of bricks when they do.
But Cromwell doesn’t die here, nor does Boleyn, although a lot of other people do – and in some pretty horrifying ways. Burning, disembowelling – Mantel doesn’t flinch when presenting the many and gruesome deaths – and more to the point, she has her readers contemplate them in the same way that the condemned are: showing us scenes of anticipation and preparation that are gut-wrenching (e.g., the fellow - I forget his name, starts with a B - and the candle in the Tower), but which are also necessary to put us in the middle of this world, and feel for these characters deeply; to understand how a thoughtless word, a loyalty held too long, a momentary lapse in correctly sensing the shift in weather and whim can lead to ruin.
And, in the process, making Cromwell’s accomplishments all the more stunning.
With the single exception, perhaps, of Cromwell (who sticks out like a sore thumb; he's somehow different than the rest of these people; more 'modern'), it doesn't matter who you are, how hard you work, or what natural abilities you possess. None of these bears a direct correlation to fame, fortunes or outcome. It only matters who you are born to, whose favour you curry or attract, and what role the powerful want you to play in their chess game.
What Mantel is showing us is the rise and fall from power of each of the most significant characters during this volatile time. The opportunities seized, alliances forged, compromises made on the way up – and how they unravel on the way down.
Politics. Whether power is obtained by divine right or democracy, the humans at the heart of it – across time – are the same creatures, with lusts, greed, principles and passions for money, for sex, for respect, for domination.
This is politics and history lifting off the page through the most extraordinary characterization – humanization, really. This is absolutely the best that historical fiction can be.
Let me also talk about dialogue just a bit: it, too, is almost anachronistically modern. It’s especially so when it comes out of Cromwell's mouth. It's modern in the sense that it is dry, ironic, sarcastic, humorous and most of all egalitarian. When Thomas has a conversation with someone – but especially his wife and children – he is listening. He is listening with his heart and head wide open to other people’s feelings and desires, and with an empathy born out of his own abusive past. That is if not the key, certainly a key to understanding his personality.
He has a psychotherapist’s ability to understand motivation: what people want, why they want it, how far they’ll go to get it. And then, he has an opportunist’s ability to insert himself in exactly the place he needs to be to help them do it.
This dual- (tri, quadri-?) sided, chameleon-like personality – will the real Thomas Cromwell please stand up? – is Mantel’s incredible, extraordinary accomplishment here.
He made me nervous. I had my sociopath-sniffer on full alert. He reminded me, at times, of personalities I’ve encountered in the corporate world: snakes in suits. All charm and manipulation and laser-like, greed-headed, power-seeking opportunism. They disguise their lust for power behind facile arguments about “win-win-win” and “trickle-down” scenarios and "their employees being their greatest assets," when really, they'd sell their own mothers for a shot at a C-level title and all the accoutrements that come with. They manage up and abuse down.
But Cromwell – largely by virtue of the brain-busting non-specific third person POV that Mantel uses to bring us inside his head – is not a sociopath. Yep – he’s an opportunist. Yep – he’s a manipulator. But he’s not cruel. He does not use his extrasensory perception about people without compassion or kindness. Mantel shows us a Cromwell trying to get everyone what they need, help them position themselves appropriately - but some can't be saved. Some are going to be casualties of the bigger shift he sees coming.
Also: he loves - really loves - children and animals (showing him with all those little dogs named Bella is not accidental).
When Cromwell wins, it actually is true that a whole bunch of other people win – and those who don’t (Thomas More, e.g.), are not just on the wrong side of the power elite, but on the wrong side of the wave that is about to swamp this society: a reformation of manners, morality and social structure that will, eventually, triumph. As Cromwell envisions.
There is a clear, strong sense here that Cromwell does not do what he does for personal gain (or at least, not primarily for that – that’s a happy artifact), but because he’s pursuing that vision of a meritocratic democracy in which beat-up little boys and used-and-abused little girls can grow up and get a share of the nation’s massive wealth (throughout much of his own lifetime, held by the Church).
Ok, maybe that’s overstating it. His own vision, while expansive, while prescient, may not have been that progressive. But ... then again ... in both subtle and overt ways, we see Cromwell who is a man out of his own time, a notion that Mantel deliberately heightens through his style of dialogue, and his very thoughts which we are privy to via that third-person POV.
He wanted to wrest the wealth away from the Church so the King could have it – but he ALSO realized that transferring the full weight of power previously held by the Church onto the King would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Instead, he wanted the power of the King to be supported by the will of the people. He foresaw not only the religious reformation that had to occur, but the political one: that together, these were the seeds of a constitutional monarchy that would rule only through the political will of the people.
It is as though Mantel reverse-engineered the guy. I feel she must have said to herself: what kind of man would be able to engineer a precedent-shattering divorce for Henry VIII, the English Reformation – oh, and while we’re at it, the beginning of the English Parliamentary system? She knew it wasn’t Henry VIII himself – that someone else must have been the man behind the curtain, and that someone was Thomas Cromwell.
So she built him – layer by layer, scene by scene. Starting on the first page, where the first paragraph shows him being beaten viciously by his father.
We start with Thomas Cromwell as an abused child.
I cannot emphasize this enough. He is an abused child who grows up to have deep compassion and exhibit remarkable kindness in a world that is, to our modern eyes, inconceivably cruel. The psychology of that can play out in any number of ways, but the horrific abuse and abandonment that Cromwell experienced is the crucible out of which his personality and all his later acts were forged.
He is a man deeply in love with his first (and only?) wife, whom he treats as an equal.
He is a tradesman, a businessman and a believer that, like him, all men have within them the same abilities. And so he is also a mentor and a teacher to them. (There is an extraordinary scene of him with a young boy that Thomas More had horrifically abused, breaking down with Cromwell. It is brilliant. I forget the character’s name now, maybe he was someone who went on to do something great in history. Or maybe he wasn’t; doesn't matter. It is Cromwell's connection with him that matters.) How many young men, pseudo-sons, does he take under his wing - orphans, ruffians, of low birth just like him?
He’s a self-made man whose lack of rank in this society presents a constant hurdle but also offers him the ability to see an alternate reality.
He’s an accountant, a lawyer, a biblical scholar. He follows the money, he makes the laws and he outreasons the priests and bishops with superior knowledge not only of scripture, but of how to use it to galvanize the masses. Calling him a ‘renaissance man’ – a descriptor Henry VIII claimed for himself – would be underselling him.
What he is not: a liar, a bully, a thief, or a sociopath.
And also what he is not is principled: he really doesn’t have any of his own. Loyalty, maybe; but not at the cost of his own skin or fortunes. He was absolutely tortured by the downfall of his mentor Cardinal Wolsley, but he also cold-bloodedly extricated himself from going down with him despite the personal trauma it caused him.
And that is where Thomas Cromwell differs from most of us: he serves whichever master will enable him to execute his own vision, almost entirely BECAUSE he has no dogma of his own (Groucho Marx: “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.”) He is surprised when, twice, he offers condemned traitors (including Thomas More) a way out, and they don’t take it – standing firm on their own dogmatic allegiance to principle. This is Cromwell’s biggest blindspot – also, the thing that enables him to survive.
I have Bring Up The Bodies sitting right in front of me. I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to delight in the anticipation and delay my gratification.
Thank you to the lovely, anonymous man in the Port Credit Starbucks who handed me the napkins, without a word, as I finished this up not an hour ago w...moreThank you to the lovely, anonymous man in the Port Credit Starbucks who handed me the napkins, without a word, as I finished this up not an hour ago with tears filling my eyes.
It was a perfect moment perfectly matched to this pretty much perfect book. ______________________
Can I keep giving all the books I read this year four or five stars? Is my judgement becoming less and less credible (assuming it had any credibility...moreCan I keep giving all the books I read this year four or five stars? Is my judgement becoming less and less credible (assuming it had any credibility in the first place)? May I just say that it's all Goodreads' fault, and the many Goodreaders (you know who you are) who've led me to these authors and books that so precisely fulfill my every literary desire? I'm getting ruthless at picking and choosing among my to-read pile, going only for those I *know* will satisfy me - the responsibility for which must be laid again firmly at the feet of Goodreads and Goodreaders.
So there, if you are getting fewer reviews and these meaningless and unvarying 4- and 5-star ratings from me, you have only yourself to blame. And I am too busy reading 4 and 5-star books to pay much attention or care.
The Plague of Doves reads like a connected set of short stories, which (as I found out in the end notes) is what it started out as. While there was a loose narrative strand woven like a straw through these vignettes - a shocking event in the prologue, unravelled by the final chapter - that is not why you should read this, if you haven't yet.
No, it's for Erdrich's poetic, penetrating, raw insights. They left me breathless. They have both edge and lyricism in them. They are gritty, spare and harsh while also infused with an ethereal, magical reality, e.g.:
"I had expected to feel joy but instead felt a confusion of sorrow, or maybe fear, for it seemed that my life was a hungry story and I its source, and with this kiss I had now begun to deliver myself into the words." (Evelina, p. 20)
and, unexpected and prevalent, a razor-sharp black humour, e.g.:
"Mama said so, and when we fought she shut us up by saying, "Just imagine how you'd feel if something happened." Imagining the other dead helped us enjoy each other's company." (Evelina, p. 28)
The entire exchange between Joseph & Evelina's father and Mooshum, starting with:
"'Is your sister fond of flowers? What is her favorite?' 'Stinging nettles.' ... 'What were her charming habits when she was young?' 'She could fart the national anthem.' ... 'She's got her teeth, no? All of them?' 'Except the ones she left in her husbands.'" (p. 35)
Spirituality is treated with the complexity it deserves, e.g. the incredibly touching scenes between Evelina and Sister Mary Anita, and the way she describes how Shamengwa and Mooshum goad Father Cassidy.
And lines, snippets of dialogue, fleeting imagery that seem tossed off, but are deceptively important. Erdrich, like any poet, is deliberate in her descriptions:
"My uncle Warren, who would stare and stare at you like he was watching your blood move and your food digest." (Marn Wolde, p. 139)
"Looking into my father's eyes you would see the knowledge, tender and offhand, of the ways roots took hold in the earth." (p. 139)
How she deals with madness and sadness - the entire Marn Wolde section, but especially Marn's descriptions of how (and why) she dissociates ("The words are inside and outside of me, hanging in the air like small pottery triangles, broken and curved." p. 145; all of p. 146 - spectacular, haunting imagery).
The music. The violin, how it unites and divides a family; how it cures and kills. "That I must play was more important to me than my father's pain. ... It was a question of survival, after all. If I had not found the music, I would have died of the silence." (Shamengwa, p. 203)
Music and stories; magic and madness; brutality and guilt and, most of all, love:
"Her face, and my father's face, were naked with love. It wasn't something that we talked about - love - and I was terrified of its expression from the lips of my parents. But they allowed me this one clear look at it. Their love blazed from them. And then they left. I think now that everything that was concentrated in that one look--their care in raising me, their patient lessons in every subject they knew to teach, their wincing efforts to give me freedoms, their example of fortitude in work--allowed me to survive myself." (Evelina, p. 222)
The entire Evelina section, from her Anais Nin obsession to her bad poetry to her descent into her own hell and rise out of it, stands alone and shines, shines, shines with pain and longing; growth and survival -- even triumph.
Sometimes, often, Erdrich leads you down a paragraph or chapter and then concludes - wham - with a milestone plot point (someone died; came or left; endured or was destroyed) that has its impact rooted in the surprise of its inevitability.
She doesn't make you feel angry at not seeing it coming -- she just leaves you in awe that she got you there so subtly and cleverly. And then she gifts you with this insight that has about 12 million layers of meaning and resonance with the story, the other characters, and your own life. Because she's a poet, and poetry does that.
I love her.
I'm so glad she's written so many books, and I can savour them in turn without the anxiety of soon running out. Although, these are definitely books that bear and deserve re-reading. (less)
The most beautifully written book I've read in a very long time. And describing such horror - which makes the language used all the more powerful. It...moreThe most beautifully written book I've read in a very long time. And describing such horror - which makes the language used all the more powerful. It really is a very long prose poem, I think. It functions as a poem, in terms of the vignettes and how they resonate with each other. So many layers of meaning, like the limestone. The strength of the central metaphor - memory, time and experience as geological - holds it all together, more than plot/character.
More to say later. I want to do a review of this that will compel more Goodreaders to read it. This is a novel that is not to be missed.(less)
Count me among those who are blown away, moved, enraptured by this novel. It worked for me on at least six different levels: plot/narrative; structure...moreCount me among those who are blown away, moved, enraptured by this novel. It worked for me on at least six different levels: plot/narrative; structure; voice; theme; symbolic/linguistic; genre.
It worked in the grandest sense of its philosophy (its dismantling of the Nietzchean 'will to power' concept) and the plainest: it's damn fine story-tellin'!
In fact, I loved this novel so much that it's going on my "for the desert island" shelf. By which I mean, if stranded on a desert island (interesting resonance there), this is a book that will sustain me; keep me thinking; keep me interested on repeated readings.
Many others on goodreads have written fabulous reviews for this - I've liked a slew of them; sorry if I missed yours. I can't add much to them except to note that it's interesting which sections are pointed to as favourites. Me, I can't pick one - although Sonmi-451 was perhaps the most disturbing, and I'm not sure I've fully understood it. So that one scratches, scratches at me.
Here is one, overarching comment: the thing needs to be read as a whole (and in the order presented, breaks and all); none of these sections would stand up particularly well (I don't think?) on their own AND it needs to be broken down in its parts to the most micro-level to suck the true goodness out of its marrow.
And I mean down to the sentence, even word, level. The repetitions in symbols/objects and connections at the sentence-level were extraordinary; and fun! Did you play the same game I did, trying to spot them?
And then another layer: each section in the first half started with a fall; each in the second with an escape.
And then another: can we escape the fall?
It's a tapestry ... and it's a piece of music: themes appear and re-appear, threaded together by single notes, by motifs.
I see in it what motivated the movie. I see why the movie may have been crap (I don't know; I haven't seen it - but will). This novel is very visual, as well as visionary -- although I say that, and I'm not sure how original it really is, except again as viewed as the sum of its parts. It was published the year after Oryx Crake and perhaps that reference is fresh for me thanks to Moira's recent reading/posting about it, but there are striking similarities (CorpSeCorps v. Neo So Copros - freaky, huh?). And then both of them, Cloud Atlas in particular, harken back to A Canticle for Liebowitz. Maybe that is the way of post-apoc dystopias. Even in the future, nothing is original. Hah!
Cloud Atlas begs to be understood by being taken out of its element and plopped into a new one. Or maybe not for the understanding so much as the experience - that Matryoshka doll thing. The genres are one thing, but I'd like to see a sextet of translations of the novel into other artforms entirely, aside from film: musical (of course); the aforesaid tapestry; a painting; a play (?); a poem; would sculpture work?
And then all of those artforms would be presented as one piece of performance art, delivered in a marathon 12 hours.
Two hundred years to grow; two hundred years to live; two hundred years to die. The idea of growth, life, death in an endless cycle. Cowardice and courage and choices. Rises and falls. Entrapment and escape. Damnation and salvation and states of limbo in between.
This novel is in 6/8 time.
"It ain't savages what are stronger'n Civ'lizeds, Meronym reck'ned, it's big numbers what're stronger'n small numbers. Smart gived us a plus for many years, like my shooter gived me a plus back at Slopin' Pond, but with 'nuff hands'n'minds that plus'll be zeroed one day."
This is the first read, the taking-in of it all, the macro-micro view that skips details.
Faith gets such a bad rap these days. The most egregiously distorted personifications of it stand as paragons: Sarah Palin's hypocritical, dangerous a...moreFaith gets such a bad rap these days. The most egregiously distorted personifications of it stand as paragons: Sarah Palin's hypocritical, dangerous and politicized evangelism; Pat Robertson's venomous, hateful, racist diatribes. Et cetera.
At the foundation of these demonstrations of faith is a lack of any kind of sensible, coherent, thought-through logic. The Palins and Robertsons of the world--and their brand of religious belief and practice--are easily dismissed because the presentation of it is nonsensical to the point of psychosis. They require, on the part of their followers, the complete turning-off of that part of the brain that questions and evaluates. The thinking part of the brain. As a result, thinking comes to be antithetical to Christian belief or any kind of extremist religious belief.
This is not right. I am open-minded enough to know that, even though I don't share it and can't share it, there are many people whose faith is well-founded on a belief system that has been examined, scrutinized, sometimes (often) struggled with. A belief system that includes doubt and fallibility; and also compassion and tolerance for those who don't share it. This is why it's faith, because it includes--not precludes--doubt and questioning.
John Ames, Marilynne Robinson's creation in Gilead, is the latter type of believer, a person of faith which does not preclude either doubt or intellect. In reading this character's thoughts, my eyes were opened again to that kind of believer, one for whom I have ultimate respect. I can't share his world-view, but I can respect it, and here, I can even enjoy it--the beautiful, lyrical, literary examination and presentation of faith.
I've now said more than I wanted to about this book, because this review captures almost precisely my response to it, and far more eloquently than I have so far. (thank you, brian)
Some other things I enjoyed, all of them very subtle:
1) the wry, sneak-up on you humour (very unexpected, but welcome); 2) the imagery of the 'hereafter' -- envisioned as a third dimension, unknowable and indescribable; 3) the presentation of aging (in this, Ames reminds me of Hagar in Laurence's The Stone Angel--another gorgeously evocative depiction of the aging mind); 4) of course, the character and symbolism of "Jack"--what he represents to John Ames, the doubt and struggle with his own faith and adherence to faith-based behaviour that Ames ultimately manages to integrate into his own belief system, and with whom he reconciles, both on a physical 'in-the-world' level as well as a spiritual one. (less)
Profoundly moving, beautifully written with deep compassion and empathy for human grief, for the tragic moments that define our lives and characters....moreProfoundly moving, beautifully written with deep compassion and empathy for human grief, for the tragic moments that define our lives and characters. Nine-year-old Oskar Schell will stay with me, I think, for a very long time.
I finished late last night (early this morning) and immediately got out of bed to look up a feature written by Ian Brown, published in The Globe & Mail on September 15th, 2001. I've remembered it to this day, because Brown wrote so eloquently about the question: "Would you rather fly to your death, or burn to it?" (The things we can't get out of our minds) There were two photographs that illustrated the story: one of a group of people leaning out of the broken windows of one of the Twin Towers; the other of a man falling (jumping) from one of them. Very similar to the ones in EL&IC.
Foer takes us convincingly into the mind of an extremely (but not unbelievably) sensitive boy whose father had to make the decision whether to fly or to burn. Oskar's journey to put some sense around the circumstances of his father's death, and the parallel stories told by his grandmother and grandfather, is a remarkable literary accomplishment of both characterization and plot. It is incredible story telling, period.
The textual 'gimmickry', as some have called it, is evocative of Vonnegut, in that it sheds an obliquely-angled light on these characters, and their struggles to communicate--after trauma--their deepest feelings, their shame and their guilt, their loss and their grief. These things that are so difficult to render in words. Foer creates a character whose trauma left him mute. He creates a deaf character who reduces every individual to one word. He creates a character who has not attained the level of cognitive or emotional development to express his grief. He creates a character who, at the moment of his death, is leaving an unanswered/unanswerable message on an answering machine.
These are characters who all, in different ways, cannot communicate their truth, cannot connect to those they love, at a moment in their lives of unimaginable trauma. Actually, at a moment of vicarious trauma such as that we all experienced close to 10 years ago. Vicarious trauma = survivor's guilt, and this is a novel that really explores that.
In the aftermath of trauma, when we lose the ability to communicate in words, this is what our minds do: they fixate on objects that appear disembodied; they blur the distinctions between what is real and what is not. They run thoughts and ideas together in ways that lack any kind of linear logic or coherence. While experiencing trauma and grief and survivor's guilt, we make choices that we would never make if we were in "our right minds" and we exhibit behaviour that appears irrational. Would you choose to fly or burn to your death?
We descend, in our grief, to isolation, to catatonia--temporary or lasting--and sometimes, to madness.
Foer's novel shows us his characters' pain. So that when we see a photograph of a doorknob, or a key, or a blurred flock of birds -- these visual images connect to textual ones and then resonate with themes. It is more akin to how poetry works than how literature usually does.
Isn't this exactly what we want a novel to do? It is to me.
I would rip into Foer if I believed his textual gimmickry was in any way manipulative, derivative or unnecessary. I think the opposite: it reveals character, it cuts through sentiment, and it brings the reader into the characters' minds to a depth that would be absolutely impossible with straightforward narrative style. Without it, I believe the story and Oskar would have lost a dimension that it needed to avoid the very accusations of manipulativeness and sentiment that have been made against it.
I hate that I am defending Foer against the nay-sayers in this review, when what I actually want to do is examine everything that he did so very right, so incredibly perfectly and extremely well, to bring this story to light.
I'm doing a line by line close reading of The Wasteland, because I have the utter gall and audacity to think that I may do some kind of review here. I...moreI'm doing a line by line close reading of The Wasteland, because I have the utter gall and audacity to think that I may do some kind of review here. I don't know what that will look like, yet -- but I reckon if I make this note, some of the goodreaders might actually hold me to it.
I'm through sections I and II. I love this edition, which has copious annotations including Eliot's own, an excellent introduction that discusses some of the more important and interesting text changes over the early years, plus lots of in-depth background material, lit crit, etc. All jam packed into 288 un-intimidating pages. (note to self - the poem is 433 lines. My updates will be expressed as % completed of the poem alone)
The beauty of Eliot (as I recalled and can now re-confirm) is that you can pay attention to this, i.e., the classical allusions and other context, or not, as you choose. The poem is accessible, readable, interpretable without these. Engage with it, and you cannot help but get something out of it.
This is another text (I'm thinking of Mrs. Dalloway now) that changes, morphs into whatever the shape of container that the reader brings to it. It's hard, for me at least and especially these days (despite my training by avid New Critics) to approach any text cleanly and in a vacuum. So I confess that this time I am thinking of Eliot a little more broadly. (I am also reading his letters side-by-side).
Here, Eliot's proselytizing Christianity (not his anti-Semitism) is hovering in the background, inflecting the text with a layer of meaning that I find myself reacting to (against?) and needing to incorporate. There is also a materialism/anti-materialism theme that is emerging this time around, where it didn't before.
I look forward to seeing how these themes and others shape up in the remainder of the poem, and whether I end up having a different view of the poem -- and the poet -- than I once did.
This was a difficult re-read. In the flush of youth, when I first read it (at my cynical, pessimistic - and arrogant - peak), every line spoke to me....moreThis was a difficult re-read. In the flush of youth, when I first read it (at my cynical, pessimistic - and arrogant - peak), every line spoke to me. Now, I am amazed at how flimsy the story, and how brittle and bleak - but oh-so-deeply entrenched - is the cynicism. I don't remember it that way. Today, it made me deeply, almost unbearably sad to think that the world - that I - felt so aligned with the dominant worldview of this novel. It still speaks to me, but it says different things.
I haven't re-read Slaughterhouse Five, so can't know right now if I'd have the same response to it, but I can say that in Cat's Cradle there is no relief from the pessimism with any of Vonnegut's trademark compassion, humanism or humour, as there is in, for example, Mother Night or Jailbird, both of which remain enduring favourites of mine upon many re-reads.
All of Vonnegut's novels are, by definition, permeated with a deep pessimism - but most of them offer up at least some slim hope, usually in the form of a single human being's ability to connect with another, or even just need that connection (which at least points to his or her humanity). There is the opportunity for atonement for wrongs done which provides some comfort, if not absolution. There is a sense of humanity's deep flaws, but also its resilience and capacity to love.
There is none of that here.
Here, conversations and human relationships are superficial, cliché-ridden, vapid - even worse, unnecessary. Traditional connections between people are lampooned as granfaloons - a gentle and whimsical irony, even the word itself, that betrays a deeper violation of trust and breakdown of social structure.
Science and scientists create world-destroying technologies simply because they can, and because they are so far removed from any connection to humanity, love, a moral or ethical system, that they have no compunction or qualms in doing so.
The drive for conventional sex - as opposed to the Bokononist practice of boku-maru - has evaporated as its only value is not to express love or build intimacy, but for procreation - which dampens desire faster than a cold shower in a post-Ice Nine world. Politics have failed, and are so irrelevant and corrupt that a random stranger who shows up on a remote island is named president because no one else wants the job.
The comfort of religion is non-existent: Bokononism, the closest thing to a spiritual belief system, undermines the need for belief and a sense of purpose, and its own believers, in a layered irony so serpentine it almost sucks itself into an intellectual black hole. Everyone believes in it in secret, which is not secret, although it is punishable by death. Everyone turns to it for comfort in times of both celebration and trauma, and it invariably mocks them with its own meaninglessness.
Published in 1963, this novel is of a time and place (as was I when I first read it) that no longer exists in exactly this form, although it is hauntingly, chillingly contemporary and because written as an allegory, easily transposed. Although this particular Cat's Cradle, a metaphor for seeking pattern and meaning with its added layer of infinite futility, is an allegory for the scientists who first split the atom and the weaponry of mass destruction to which that accomplishment led, it is an end-times scenario that offers maximum flexibility across time and remains disturbingly apt.
Vonnegut's anger at that particular act, those men, that world is palpable - it radiates from the page.
I've written before on goodreads that the difference between today and 1963 is that the dangers we now face - although surely as potentially planet-destroying - are still far enough away to afford us the false comfort of deniability. Not so in 1963. Vonnegut himself had seen the atom bomb deployed. He knew how the world could end, and it was imminent. In Cat's Cradle, he is at his most nihilistic - he believes, as the San Lorenzans did after Ice Nine was let loose, that suicide is absolutely the only sane answer in a doomed world.
In short, though its prose barely holds together as a story, and though its humour is so dark as to be invisible (at least to this reader, on this read), this novel's satire is so biting, its cynicism so pervasive, its sense of futility and purposelessness so extreme, that the thing almost felt hot to the touch. As hard as it was to read, it's equally hard not to acknowledge it as a masterpiece. (less)
I start with a quotation and a musical backtrack that seem somehow fitting, and because I have to start somewhere. In A Mercy, all homes are temporary and dangerous; the most devoted act of familial love is a mother's greatest sacrifice, perceived as an abandonment. There is--in the end--no place to go, no home left and no one at all to provide comfort or shelter to these characters. They are, all, abandoned and isolated in the most profound way.
In this novel, the arc of human connection and family begins in isolation and fear, and ends in isolation and despair. No human relationship--not the unusually happy bond between man and woman that Rebekka and Jacob enjoyed; not the unlikely bond of friendship between Rebekka and Lina; nor the quasi-mother/daughter one between Lina and Florens; and certainly not that between Florens and the blacksmith, survives. Some are torn apart by disease and death; some by all-consuming, intolerant Christianity; some by being unable to survive the social and legal structures of the time that gave so many (Indians, Africans, women) the status of property with the same rights, meaning none, as animals. (Morrison is so clever when she starts by showing us Jacob's kindness toward animals: the trapped raccoon; the horse being beaten. This is how we know, although Florens doesn't, that the kindness Florens' minha mãe sees in him is justified; her act one of mercy and not abandonment.)
In each character, Morrison shows us the impact that loss of family, lack of love, isolation, slavery and indentured servitude has upon human beings. The effects of trauma are clearly visible through the lens of our current understanding of psychology. Lina becomes obsessively jealous and ultimately murderous in defending those she loves. Sorrow dissociates and finds comfort, security and a source of emotional stability in an alterego whom she calls Twin (and who calls her by her real name--whatever that is). Rebekka seeks blind comfort in the promise of religious salvation--it is likely, although not clear, that she becomes a religious zealot following the example of many of her neighbours, which she formerly scorned. Florens' personality disintegrates into catatonia, where her last act of self-expression is to scratch out her (self-described) confession on the walls of Jacob's unfinished house.
Everyone, simply every single character, is defined by their place within a hierarchy based on the degree to which they can be bought and sold. Even Jacob Vaark, near the top of that ladder, is required to subjugate himself before Senhor and negotiate a business deal by transgressing his class status, at great risk to his own life. Though Jacob claws his way to the top, he ultimately succumbs to an unexpected death (symbolically and ironically, when building a monument to his own status), which then devastates everyone who depends upon him for their own livelihood and safety.
How have we developed into a more compassionate, just society from these beginnings? (surely we have)
Morrison shows us, with remarkable conciseness and the most riveting and rich symbolism and imagery, how crucial are human bonds to our survival as individuals, as families, as communities.
By its close, the novel leaves us with some shreds of faint hope: Sorrow, made Complete, and her daughter; Willard and Scully who seem likely to succeed, or at least, survive relatively unscathed. These characters--the ones who have the best chance of survival in this harsh world--have such because they have each other. The rest will not fare as well, we know.
At the centre of the story is Florens: the one "given away", the one who cleaves to anyone and anything that might provide her with the love she needs to survive. The one sent on an errand to save her Mistress' life, whose own motivation is used by her Mistress and Lina to assure the mission's success, but which comes to destroy Florens herself.
Florens is the feeler, the sensitive one, the reader and writer, the poet. All raw emotion and need. Every other character has some kind of protective husk or shell atop their personality, born of trauma but nonetheless, one that shelters them from the cruelty and harshness that surrounds them. Florens does not--in the end, she is stripped of all comforts, all sense of belonging, and even her precious shoes.
Florens yearns for and will respond to the simplest things--she reads the absence of cruelty as love (hence her devotion to the blacksmith--although it is more complex than that). She finally becomes, in the words of the prescient and intuitive Scully, untouchable: "if he had been interested in rape, Florens would have been his prey. It was easy to spot that combination of defenselessness, eagerness to please and, most of all, a willingness to blame herself for the meanness of others. Clearly, from the look of her now, that was no longer true. The instant he saw her marching down the road--whether ghost or soldier--he knew she had become untouchable." (p. 152)
She has not evolved to a more resilient state; rather, what we are seeing is Florens shutting down with grief and despair. She becomes almost catatonic after the blacksmith's rejection of her--this second abandonment is her final undoing. She withdraws into a primal emotional state, where she finally gains a defense; but loses whatever is left of her sanity.
Morrison writes Florens' chapters using a primitive, barely literate voice, giving her an extreme authenticity and also showing her as the poet she is: "Night is thick no stars anyplace but sudden the moon moves. The chafe of needles is too much hurt and there is no resting there at all. I get down and look for a better place. By moonlight I am happy to find a hollow log, but it is wavy with ants." (p. 67)
In the novel itself, it is Florens' chapters that show Morrison as a genius story-teller and writer. There is much more, of course, but these chapters--Florens' incredible voice and telling of her story--mark A Mercy as a novel of astonishing and profound substance and quality.
The final chapter, in which Florens' minha mãe returns to summarize what she has done and why, is a gorgeous denouement. But, I cannot say, a hopeful or optimistic one. Despite that, read this book. It has left me awed, inspired, moved and ... strangely enough ... grateful. (less)
"this is the fear, this is the dread these are the contents of my head..."
I've always loved that line from Annie Lennox's Why. This book is about the c...more"this is the fear, this is the dread these are the contents of my head..."
I've always loved that line from Annie Lennox's Why. This book is about the contents of two characters' heads: Paloma, the 12-yr old suicidal prodigy, and Renée, the 50-something cat-lady concierge. Be careful with these characters, and by that I mean: take care of them, for they are fragile, sad souls in need of understanding and in need, moreover, of someone--anyone--to see through their facades and see them for who they really are. And don't we all need that?
And be careful of them: for they will, despite their attempts to push you away with their overly intellectual babbling, their deliberate hiding, their desperate and unconscious need to repress their true natures to protect themselves from long-buried pain or more recent and ongoing torment, sneak up on you, seize your heart and send you reeling at the depth of what they reveal about being human, about being loved, about being validated, about being.
Their torment is simply the day-to-day experience of living when you are of a certain sensibility: when you think deeply, feel deeply, experience the full pain of injustice and hypocrisy around you and--even worse for these two trapped into the stereotypes imposed on them by their class and time and place--when you are disenfranchised, "out of time" and "out of place".
This is the story of two misfits who find comfort, eventually, gratefully, mercifully, in themselves and in others. Who reconcile their heads with their hearts, and find a way of being in the world that is bearable for them. This occurs through the intervention of a third character, Kakuro Ozu, who--while he has his own story, his own pain, his own needs--is somewhat secondary to the story.
Nothing happens in this novel, and yet two lives open up, blossom like a camellia (<-- simile chosen intentionally, important symbol), and then...
Well, I will leave it to you to find out. Please do.
The only way you will be disappointed by this book, I think, is if you allow the two protagonists to mislead you. If you see their endless philosophizing and pretense as anything other than what it is: a desperate need to cover up what can only be a similarly-deep and coherent heartache.
The ending is an absolute triumph, for the characters and for the reader. Which is not to say that it is a happy or unambiguous one. But it will send you spinning, it is so very unexpected, so very poignant. I burst into tears. Literally. (how many reviews have I written lately where I mention myself crying. I'm not a suck, really.)
Does it pull the strands of Renée's story together a little too neatly? Part of me thought so, but that was my head talking, not my heart. Despite everything you are reading, listen to your heart in this story, not to your head--your head, in isolation, will lead you astray and strip from you the richness of the story unfolding (a theme, and--for this fable--a moral, yes indeed).
Did I write once here that I hate fables? I believe I did. The Elegance of the Hedgehog (and what a fabulous title--it's what made me pick this up in the first place), along with Timothy Findley's Not Wanted On The Voyage are exceptions to the rule.
A few notes: Renée's first-person narration takes a surreal turn at the end--does it work? It pulled me out of the story a bit, although I quickly overcame it. I'd appreciate hearing others' viewpoints on that. Also, a very good grounding in Tolstoy's War and Peace, which shamefully I do not have, likely adds a layer to the meaning. My view is that it is not important to know Kant or the phenomenologists as well--this is part of Renée's charade, meant to be seen through. Agree?
Final note: the social satire is as delicious as the plum jam Renée uses to test the strength of a philosophical argument. I particularly enjoyed the ridicule of psychoanalysis, but then I am evil that way. hehe
Seriously recommended. On my "lonely hearts club" shelf. An unequivocal 5 stars from me.(less)
"The few words that I have to add to what I have written, are soon penned; then I, and the unknown friend to whom I write, will part for ever. Not wit...more"The few words that I have to add to what I have written, are soon penned; then I, and the unknown friend to whom I write, will part for ever. Not without much dear remembrance on my side. Not without some, I hope, on his or hers." p.985
This is Dickens in 1853 writing to his reader through Esther as he brings to a close what I and just about everyone on my GR friends list acknowledge as Dickens' finest, most memorable novel.
Dang, but it holds up well – whether 160 years since publication or the 25ish since I first read it. I will not let so much time elapse before my next re-read.
My overall impression mere hours after turning the last page is that this novel is about the imperative of kindness. Concrete, tangible, purposeful acts of compassion to counter a world where the hope of justice is futile and where charity is arrogantly misapplied or applied with a colonial sledgehammer and too far afield to do any good for anyone who really needs it.
"There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all."
Dickens' rage against those he sees as parasites (embodied here by lawyers), sucking dry the bodies that feed them, feels very contemporary. Yet this theme - while paramount and obvious, and the one I identified with most 25+ years ago - is set against its more subtle opposite: kindness and compassion, embodied in the Allan Woodcourts and Mr. Jarndyces of the novel (the latter of whom makes a specific issue to defer and evade acknowledgement of or gratitude for his charity).
The counterweight of the many and varied acts of kindness and compassion set against scenes of great tragedy and sadness give this novel its extraordinary balance, sweep and power.
It seems to me that what Dickens is saying and showing us is that kindness is the real heart and soul of justice, the emotional context for it not just the intellectual construct. He is saying, I think, that raging against the machine - seductive as that is, especially for the young! - is a less effective antidote to injustice than is acting with kindness and compassion. The former is the intellectual response, the professional one. The latter is for all the rest of us, who go about our lives every day the best we can.
You can get sucked in, as Richard Carson does, to a system that will ultimately destroy you - a system that will, like those who live off of it, self-combust in a puff of inconsequential smoke without you having done much of anything to hasten that process along.
Or you can just try to do the best you can with what you've got: "strive ... to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted, and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself if I could," as our almost insufferably optimistic but ultimately endearing heroine, Esther, does.
These characters' many, many acts of kindness -- not just the obvious ones of Esther and Mr. Jarndyce, but the small and more subtle ones(view spoiler)[ such as Mr. Bucket's steady, diligent attempt to save Lady Dedlock; George's care for Phil, and his and Phil's care in turn of Jo; Sir Leicester's immediate, unquestioning forgiveness of his wife; Liz returning the favour of bringing medicine to Jo, as he had to her; and pretty much every scene Allan Woodcourt is in; plus so many more! (hide spoiler)] -- never failed to bring a lump to my throat.
These characters are as real, and as well-rounded, and as deeply-felt and drawn as any in literature. They are shaded in a way that Dickens' characters often aren't. While some remain pretty much black and evil (Tulkinghorn), others change and grow, and if not completely reform, at least soften by the end. Some of the most grotesque (Guppy, the Smallweeds) become merely ridiculous, and therefore easily assimilated into the kinder, gentler post-Jarndyce v. Jarndyce world. (How delicious is the portrayal of the Leicester-Boythorn feud at the end! How marvellously nuanced and rendered harmless, albeit necessary, is that conflict!)
The characters rest within a plot that is part mystery, part character study, part love story, part social satire, part morality play – and which is as well-constructed, fast-paced and as ‘tight’ as it is possible for Dickens to be (remarkably so, in 900+ pages).
If you quibble with Dickens for his caricatured, one-note characters; his purplish prose and sentimentality; his wandering, sloppy and choppy plotting (all of which I have, in other works), I’m pretty sure you won’t here.
Bleak House is a masterpiece, and once again, I’m left feeling nothing but awe and gratitude for the experience of reading it.
Above all else, this is a love story. It is a story of family and friendship and loyalty. It is Dickens at his most florid and most rhetorical, his mo...moreAbove all else, this is a love story. It is a story of family and friendship and loyalty. It is Dickens at his most florid and most rhetorical, his most humane, his most [melo]dramatic; yet in many ways, his most precise. I vacillate between this and Bleak House as my favourites of his. I would tell you, if you've not read Dickens, to start here. This is as seminal a work in English literature as King Lear or perhaps a more apt comparison, Romeo and Juliet.
For this is a love story.
The last three chapters are intense and so evocative they take my breath away. Beyond the suspense and drama (I'm so glad I have such a bad memory - I only vaguely remembered the book, so was able to enjoy the unfolding of the story despite knowing the general gist of the outcome), they show Dickens as the consummate story-teller that he is, and a masterful rhetorician: the stand-off between Miss Pross and Mme. Defarge is absolutely stunning in its telling and as it reveals Dickens' choices about how to tell an important part of the end - how to bring to completion the themes of loyalty, friendship and love; the positive and life-giving power of allegiance to an ideal as opposed to the destructive and death-inducing allegiance to ideology.
"[Mme. Defarge] knew full well that Miss Pross was the family's devoted friend; Miss Pross knew full well that Madame Defarge was the family's malevolent enemy.
It was in vain for Madame Defarge to struggle and to strike; Miss Pross, with the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate, clasped her tight, and even lifted her from the floor in the struggle that they had."
(my underline - I just love that phrase: "the vigorous tenacity of love")
There is something, even, of Paradise Lost here. There is something on that grand a scale in depicting the fight between good and evil. Among so many dualities, set up from that absolutely extraordinary beginning paragraph that many of us can quote by heart and the title itself, good and evil/love and hate/life and death is what this book comes down to.
There is also an acknowledgement of the grey area between the polarities. There is an understanding that evil people are doing evil acts, but that these are fomented within a social and historical context: "Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seeds of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind."
It's very big: thematically, historically. And yet it's also very (for Dickens) concise. That combination is extremely potent, and probably the central reason I love it so much.
Something else to be said is the relative absence of humour or caricature as is common in Dickens, with the exception of Jerry Cruncher. Dickens - with, again, that precision - uses Jerry throughout the novel as a character that unites and advances the plot in specific ways at specific points; but he also allows him to evolve and grow in a way that he doesn't always, even in Bleak House.
I notice this time 'round that Dickens has the jaw-dropping audacity to insert what is, I believe, the only sustained comical scene in the novel (Pross and Jerry trying to make a plan; Jerry's "wows") right before its most tragic. And it IS funny, and a few pages later those tears of laughter turn to tears of anguish. This is incredible writing.
The dualities in A Tale of Two Cities could be the focus of an entire review, but the duality alluded to in the title - the two cities, at two different times - allows Dickens to make a separate, more practical and equally important point. The Dickensian point. (As an aside, the cities, the years - places, times, inanimate objects (Sainte Guillotine) are personified; occupations (knitting, shoe-making, wood-cutting, road-mending) take on an importance beyond the pedestrian, become representative in a way that supports its epic feel.)
While Miss Pross represents England and a sense of English superiority, Dickens is not merely dredging up the ages old English-French conflict; he's saying something more subtle: that London at the time he was writing was a hair's breadth away from Paris during The Terror in terms of social inequities. That these conditions, in which human brutality and cruelty arise and dominate - for a time - are predictable, repeatable. That there is a dark side to the coin: the best of times and the worst of times; wisdom and foolishness; hope and despair exist side by side across all times, all places.
The point of Carton's prophetic observations at the end is that this, too, shall pass; that, in the blink of an eye, positions will be switched (view spoiler)[(his self-sacrifice being an example; and then much can be said about Carton as a Christ-figure here) (hide spoiler)]. Yet as constants, Dickens is also always the optimist: people have the capacity for great good, as well as great evil; retribution and vengeance will be matched and outlasted by generosity and goodness; and love will, in the end, triumph.
For this is, above all else, a love story. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Forgot how much I loved this book. Love it. The richness of the character portraits, relationships, and existential themes; as well as the startling d...moreForgot how much I loved this book. Love it. The richness of the character portraits, relationships, and existential themes; as well as the startling detail of the images are highlighted even more by knowing the ending.
Back with more ... heading into Part II.
12/28/08: A piece of writing by Donald Powell [link now dead-sorry!:] caused me to think about this book, and my very different response to it from when I first read it in my early 20s to 20 years later, when I am--ahem--not in my early 20s.
Back then, the existential theme was all-important: I believe I may have read the entire book for its symbolism, more than its story or characters, which I pointed out as important above but which I don't even recall thinking about back then. Then, I was all head and very little heart (unusual for a 20-yr-old, I know) and now--forgive me if I become too autobiographical--with loves, lives and deaths having been personally and deeply experienced as opposed to merely read of and superficially dallied with, I am the reverse. Mostly all heart--slightly damaged and battered but all the more resilient for it--and much less head (or a head filled with shades of gray that cause me, or allow me depending on your POV, to see depths and angles that I was unable to see as a young'un).
These are the benefits of age, and this book is a shining example of what I was trying to say in my brief review of Donald's partial defense of Henry Miller: the ability of a writer and a story to have an impact on one's life in very different ways at different times marks the author as a prodigious talent, and says something too about our capacity for growth and change as human beings (because, of course, what we bring to the story is as or more important than what the story brings to us).
In other words, this book stands up well to the test of time.
On my second reading, I turned down just about every page of this book for quotations, character interactions and images of startling beauty and angst. I've now loaned my copy out, so can't reproduce any of these here--you'll just have to trust me. But, three reasons you should read this book, if you haven't:
1) If you are an existential atheist, like me: There is no more compelling argument than in the stories of Port and Kit Moresby for how we must create meaning in our lives absent any particular spiritual or religious faith grounding us in the universe. Bowles uses every tactic possible to strip each of these characters from their time, place, culture and--finally--each other, so that they can simply "be" in the world (looking up at the sheltering--but empty--sky, natch), and confront the fullness of what that means. Not that it turns out at all well for either of them, but it packs a wallop of a moral for the reader.
2) If you are a diehard romantic, like me: These characters yearn, and squirm, and sigh, and strive, and flail, and grasp for but never reach anything they desire. Not answers to any of the very big questions they are asking, and not each other. I recall my focus being on Port in my 20s; in my more recent reading, I was far more interested in Kit. And I was fascinated by the portrait of this very unique marriage: Bowles does an astonishing job of shifting the POV from Port to Kit as they try to communicate but end up talking around each other and missing completely the connection they so desperately seek (there again is the symbolism interacting with the personal stories). Port and Kit are each portraits of inner conflict and turmoil--so much so that I would forgive those who might scoff that they become caricatures of the angst-ridden, post-war hero and heroine who embody "All That Is Wrong With Modern Society." No matter, put it aside: yes, the novel is slightly dated but only insofar as it is set so specifically in that time and place. The setting is required, and particularly apt, to explore the deeper themes. Rather than characters, Kit and Port are to me archetypes: a couple that need each other desperately but, because they are so isolated in body, spirit and mind, they cannot be together. This is a deeply romantic and bleakly existential tale of what it means to be irredeemably alone in the universe: timeless, not time-stamped.
3) If you are both, like me: The Sheltering Sky is an existential thought experiment, but although it takes its philosophy very seriously, it never sacrifices the story for it. Credit Bowles' mastery of images and dialogue--his knack for introducing a subtly gruesome piece of horror (usually found floating in the soup) or a startling, stumbled-upon scene (like a naked man bathing in the desert). These invariably have deep symbolic importance, but even if you choose not to pause and reflect on what that might be, their effects will be felt. The story becomes mirage-like and hallucinatory, like a malaria-induced fever. Or should that be typhoid? I leave it to you to find out.
Two more things:
DO have a listen to the Sting song, Tea in the Sahara, taken from a particularly poignant (and of course oh-so-symbolic) digression in the book.
DO NOT, at all costs, even think about renting the appalling movie. And if you have seen it, burn it from your memory and go read this book despite the damage it may already have done you. (less)
Instead, I picked this up. The new edition I got has a new Foreword by a woman named CarolCindy Sheehan, who lost...moreInfinite Jest has beaten me, again.
Instead, I picked this up. The new edition I got has a new Foreword by a woman named CarolCindy Sheehan, who lost her son Casey in Iraq in 2004. This is on top of the old new Foreword by Ron Kovic -- does that name ring a bell? It should, if you are a reader of war or anti-war novels. He is the writer of the book, and the individual on whom the lead character was based, of Born On The 4th Of July, which was of course about Vietnam. (And was the last and only decent piece of work Tom Cruise has ever done, but I digress.)
So, two wars: Iraq and Vietnam. Two wars that are right now at the forefront of my mind as I watch my neighbours to the south consider their choices in the upcoming election.
And so, I turn to this novel to stoke my rage and strengthen my resolve to fight for justice and for a safer world.
ETA: I'll post an update to this review, which isn't a review at all, once I finish re-reading this. I'm looking forward to seeing if my 44-yr old self has the same reaction as my 17-yr old self to this novel.
UPDATED: Oct 5/08
Same reaction: compassion, anger, awe.
Johnny Got His Gun is among the most important anti-war novels ever written. The last three pages, in which Trumbo abandons punctuation entirely and lets loose with a scream of frustration and outrage, are triumphal.
Some of the passages that I recall so well from my first reading--30 years ago!--are didactic, yes. Today, they are no less powerful and inspirational, but more familiar and so less interesting, in some ways. In my youth, this novel was a manifesto. In my adulthood, despite the painful necessity of anti-war treatises still, I can appreciate JGHG as a novel. I know, in advance, what its ideology is. What I had forgotten, or failed to appreciate the first time around, is the importance of Joe's backstory and how it's told.
Joe Bonham is a U.S. soldier fighting in Germany in WWI. He is injured and left blind, deaf, mute and a quadruple amputee in a hospital bed somewhere, likely in Britain. Trumbo tells Joe's story (interestingly, from the third person POV) as he regains consciousness and tries to regain control over his mind and his circumstances. During the course of the novel, Joe spends five or six years--five or six years!--in complete isolation with an inability to receive or convey information. This goes far beyond the inability to communicate: he is reduced to being able to experience the world--take in information, give out information--by one sense only, the sense of touch.
Today, this is what I see and experience of this novel: The heartbreak of the contrast between Joe's remembrances of family, friends and the events of his life--which Trumbo details richly and sensually--and his life as a mind in a shattered body where his only contact with others, with life, is the six-times daily touch of a nurse.
Joe's anguish, his pain, his panic, his despair--and from there, his outrage at who and what has left him in these circumstances--becomes real to the reader as he describes his mother's cooking; a camping trip with his father; a last night with his girlfriend.
Once establishing what he's lost, Trumbo then shows us what it takes for Joe to regain his sense of place and time--and the tortured thoughts he has while doing so.
Joe's plight is the core of the anti-war message here, much more than his stream-of-conscious, rambling albeit stirring, anti-war speeches. Joe speaks for the dead; he is one of them save for the retention of his mind and his thoughts on the page.
Seventy years after JGHG was first published--seventy years!--we are prompted to ask the same questions about the justification of war. Thirty years after I first read it, the novel has retained all of what I remembered to be its power to move, to galvanize, to provoke dialogue.
JGHG was suppressed upon its publishing in 1939, at the start of WW II. It had a re-flowering in 1970, at the height of the war in Vietnam. It would be a good thing if it had another in 2008 at the height of the war in Iraq. How many times can we continue to do this?
This is a book that has remained among my Top 10 since I first read it in about 1987 or so (it was originally published in 1983). I really can't say e...moreThis is a book that has remained among my Top 10 since I first read it in about 1987 or so (it was originally published in 1983). I really can't say enough about it, and while I recognize that war novels are not to everyone's taste, I have long encouraged everyone I know to read it, even if it takes them out of their comfort zone. It's one of those novels that transcends its genre. It is, quite simply, a classic--or at least, it deserves to be. And yet, so few people have ever heard of it, or of its author, Stephen Wright. He is not very prolific; his novels don't get a lot of popular press and aren't picked up for movie deals; and honestly, his style is a little outside the mainstream to be really accessible.
But, let me give you three reasons why, if you haven't ever heard of it or of Wright, you should consider checking out Meditations In Green:
1) Wright employs some of the most beautiful language and wordplay I've ever read to describe some of the most horrific images you will ever see rendered in print. I am trying to find a quotation that does justice, but it's kind of like quoting Dylan: it's ALL quotable, and it's very difficult to excerpt and retain the power of the whole piece, which needs to wash over you. Sometimes, it's what he says directly; sometimes it's the structure of long, run-on sentences as insidious and dense as the jungle, or short machine-gun wordbursts that puncture the page. His prose sweeps you up in its rhythm until you can actually feel your blood pressure rise in response. Sometimes, it's how he develops a scene and then ends abruptly with an unwritten thought--it's what is implied, not what is written, that is so powerful. This writing is so alive, it can be no less than a raging condemnation of the death and destruction it describes.
2) The central character is a PTSD-afflicted Vietnam veteran who was responsible for targeting areas for Agent Orange attack, and who now is going slowly (or quickly) crazy in an apartment in NYC (? -- some cement jungle, in counterpoint to the real one he's left half a world away). Chapters of him at work and at war in Vietnam; and him descending into the streets of the city and further into drug-induced madness back in the 'world' are interspersed with the meditations: very short chapters told from the point of view of a houseplant. Yes, really. It's a brilliantly-employed conceit. Nature, growth, life juxtaposed with madness, death and destruction.
3) Wright brings the hallucinogenic atrocity of Vietnam to life in detail and creates a testament to the insanity not just of that war, but of all wars. IMHO, it is the finest anti-war novel since Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo. It bears some stylistic similarity to JGHG, but it is entirely Wright's own unique, wonderful, horrendous and magnificent creation.
The language and images in this novel are vivid, brutal, obscene and graphic. If you are easily offended by vulgarity, well--you'll be offended. But if you find unjust wars even more offensive, then I would encourage you to keep in mind that the last thing an anti-war novel should do is leave you feeling comfortable, or worry about offending the sensitive reader. Bravo to Wright and to all who refuse to sanitize or glorify war, and who use language appropriately to describe that which is truly obscene. (less)