ETA: my rating has gone all over the map as I've struggled to pin down my response to this book. See comment #5 for context of why this book is now raETA: my rating has gone all over the map as I've struggled to pin down my response to this book. See comment #5 for context of why this book is now rated 5! Sheesh.
Original review (Dec 27, 2013): There were parts of this I liked; not least of which is the melancholy ache it left in me, which I can only attribute to the quality of the writing, the atmosphere McCullers creates and the characters she brings to life.
Holy hell, this book is sad.
I loved Mick’s descriptions of what music meant to her; how she felt hearing it; the longing she had to “write it.” I loved her outlandish dreams and her inside and outside worlds.
I liked how all these characters circle Singer like planets around an uncaring, uncomprehending sun.
There’s something niggling at me, though, about this book, something not sitting well with me; something not resonating.
I think this book is just a little too existential even for me.
I can recognize its artistry at the same time that that artistry feels a little shallow, and a lot purposeless.
Part of me says, m’eh. I like a cast of quirky, eccentric Southern characters – and these are done up well. But there must be more to it than this.
Even Mick – the one whose ‘coming of age’ story this really is – doesn’t really come into anything. Her big finish is a kind of denouement. Her dreams are dashed, but not in any dramatic climax, rather in an inexorable narrowing of opportunities until, there she is with runs in her stockings working in Woolworth’s.
Poignant, yes. Bittersweet, yes. But nothing really happens; nothing full out blossoms or bursts. It feels one note to me.
Southern gothic and I rarely get on well together. It’s kind of like a whole lot of what I love – eccentricity and the grotesque in characterization; social issues laid bare in all their unsentimental glory; a sense of past and impending doom – gets baked up together into not a layered masterpiece, but a lumpy, undercooked mess.
It’s like looking into the heart of darkness solely for the purpose of looking into the heart of darkness, to view it in all its festering decay, to document it, to say “I was there and I survived looking at it” while retaining that sense of observational distance. The drive-by accident scene. The grainy Holocaust photos. I get the fascination. I get the adrenalin rush of horror and the sweet salve of it’s-not-me-or-anyone-I-know relief.
For me, there’s a lack of purpose or closure in it, or any sense that there’s a moral to the story beyond “life’s a bitch and then you die.” First, you suffer. Then you die. Or you don’t; you just live a life of unremarkable plainness.
These kinds of stories really are just a place for the characters to be fleshed out: for all that they are (and this is a fabulous set of quirky, eccentric, full-of-potential characters), they aren’t given a plot in which they can fulfill their potential. Even punctuated by scenes of trauma or violence, the characters themselves absorb the punches and don't change or effect change.
That's what she's saying - that these characters are powerless and ineffectual - but there's an irony here: she makes them so damn apathetic, so ineffectual, that I - as a reader - become just as apathetic in response.
It seems that McCullers is too good at her own game.
The characters and their pointlessness are the point, but it's not enough for me. It's enervating. They are the guns introduced in Act One that never go off.
And even when [the gun] does go off, it’s a bang and a whimper, and Baby never gets to be beauty queen but, oh well, the chances of that happening were pretty slim anyway, weren’t they?
These characters drift into plot points and then drift back out as seamlessly and quietly as kudzu takes over abandoned railroad tracks.
Their cafés serve endless meals to empty souls who are acutely observed.
The café’s owner – who is quite possibly a pedophile – replaces the cellophane-wrapped, fly-encrusted dinner special on display in the plate-glass window with an artfully-arranged vase of flowers.
The black medical doctor-revolutionary (view spoiler)[whose estranged son’s feet are cut off after being tortured in prison – a scene that gets a couple of paragraphs, no more, but is retold indirectly and obliquely and mostly offstage in the chapters that follow – (hide spoiler)]goes quietly and tubercularly crazy and is shipped off to a relative’s farm in a wagon led by a 19-year old mule who has worked and lived on that farm, even given a sun hat to wear when it’s hot. For a mule, 19 years is a long time to work and suffer and live – even with a sun hat and a kind owner.
The point being that these people are mules, no more no less, and you don’t have to be an agitating Commie labour organizer to know that’s wrong, just plain wrong, and sad too – but my point is that the mule is given about equal treatment in terms of focus and paragraphs to the black doctor's estranged son.
It's all conveyed at about the same emotional pitch.
There is a weird sort of genius in that, and in using the flat affect, the lack of any modulation in drama or plot, to illustrate how absolutely impotent these characters are to change their circumstances, even when they know – they have the one true purpose – and want nothing more than to change it.
Another gun goes off, this time into the heart of the heart of the lonely hunter.
And that relentless, interminable sense of ennui – muggy and hot – descends.
Despite all their protesting, their random acts, their talking talking talking at someone who can’t hear them, nothing happens. Things go on much like they were.
There is no sense for anything having changed as a result of the story being told or having happened.
So, I'm left sad ... and I'm left admiring a piece of writing that ultimately feels as empty and lonely as the lives it describes.
And that's great, I guess.
It’s not for me, this Southern gothic, is what I think.
I have been racking my brain trying to remember the name of this book ever since joining goodreads, so that I could put it on my "read" list.
I've justI have been racking my brain trying to remember the name of this book ever since joining goodreads, so that I could put it on my "read" list.
I've just found it -- seconds ago!! -- in a pile under my living room coffee table. Which tells you how well (badly) I catalogue my books, not to mention remember them.
This book is extraordinary. I'd give it five stars, but I'd have to re-read it to be absolutely certain of my recollection. I don't even know if my 4-star rating is because I liked the book, so much as it is a comment on the absolute originality of it.
It is difficult to describe and do any justice, especially over the distance of a year or more since I've read it. As it is, it exists in a kind of wash of bizarre, eccentric, strangely charming and quirky details about the voice, the characters, the themes and plot.
Francis, central character, is wonderfully disturbed and described: a kleptomaniac, obsessive-compulsive, possibly autistic? 37-yr-old, who lives in a crumbling apartment building with his parents (kind of). A new person moves in, shaking Francis to his very core and upsetting the very delicate balance he requires to retain his sanity (is he sane? I don't know)--but also freeing him, forcing him to learn to live a different way and more 'in the world'.
I will re-read this, and perhaps come back with a more articulate review. Consider this a tease. If A Confederacy of Dunces married The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-time, while keeping Bartleby the Scrivener as its mistress, and Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe were both distant ancestors, Observatory Mansions would be the offspring.
A comment on a conversation about A Mercy got me to thinking about this novel, which I read waaaayyyy back in high school. I remember my head under thA comment on a conversation about A Mercy got me to thinking about this novel, which I read waaaayyyy back in high school. I remember my head under the covers, tears streaming down my face, needing to finish even though it was late late late at night. Sophie's choice ripped my heart out even then, when I was so constrained by my own ignorance and inexperience.
This is another one of those novels I need to go back and re-read, to see if my original impression holds up.
I remember too that I made a vocabulary list from the new words I learned in this novel. I wonder if Styron's vocabulary will impress me as much today. ...more
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. II'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.
**spoiler alert** This book deserves a Masters thesis, and not the paltry little Goodreads review that I can give it.
I feel as though I've just taken**spoiler alert** This book deserves a Masters thesis, and not the paltry little Goodreads review that I can give it.
I feel as though I've just taken a walk late at night in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, where I've peeked into windows and glimpsed intimacies--not quite secrets, rather private moments--between people who are like me but unlike me.
I'm certain I've only understood the top layer of what Morrison is saying here, since the images and characters are so rich and complex and since her work is new to me. I can tell that some of it will remain elusive, as I do not have the knowledge that will allow me to understand these characters in their contexts and as part of a very specific cultural history. It's more than knowing the facts of history; it's having been shaped by that history so that the following, among much else, makes deeper sense:
- Milkman's selfishness, and Pilate's and Ruth's sacrifices for him ("From the beginning, his mother and Pilate had fought for his life, and he had never so much as made either of them a cup of tea.")
- Hagar's and Ryna's descent into madness after being abandoned by what they considered their only loves (or was it, as Susan Byrd suggested, simply that Ryna was left with 21 children)
- Guitar's violence, which I understand in general, but which I don't quite grasp toward Milkman in particular ("Would you save my life or would you take it? Guitar was exceptional. To both questions he could answer yes.")
I love how the themes of sacrifice and self-centredness play off each other in such a delicate balance here. Also, the theme of parental entanglement (why are all these 30- and 40-something "children" still at home?) contrasted with the dislocation from family and history is so beautifully rendered, with such rich symbolism: Ruth's breastfeeding of Milkman "until his feet touched the floor" and her own complicated and odd connection to her father; Pilate's carrying around the bones of her father ("her inheritance"--although she didn't know how literal that was); Corinthians' mid-life affair with Porter--"a pair of middle-aged lovers who behaved like teenagers."
This is a community that is so multi-layered, with real and mythological events so nuanced, that one reading of their story won't do. I need now to see if these themes pervade the rest of Morrison's work, or how they do. I wish I had first found this book in a formal academic setting; this is the kind of novel that needs to be studied carefully to wring every shred of meaning from it. In retrospect, my studies were too focused on a whole bunch of dead British authors, and the live American ones slipped by me. So I will now make up lost time, putting this one back on my shelf to be re-read and next picking up Beloved and A Mercy.
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. ...more