With few exceptions, I find them invariably clumsy. They try too hard. If they hold the line on subtlety, they en...moreI struggle with fables and parables.
With few exceptions, I find them invariably clumsy. They try too hard. If they hold the line on subtlety, they end up being obscure to the point of unintelligible. And if they maintain coherence and remain comprehensible, then they suffer from being so heavy-handed as to be trite or clichéd; or so direct as to be laughably simplistic.
Fables can't win for losing in my book.
Pi's GR description calls it "fablelike." So, what -- it falls short of being a full-fledged fable? It fails at fabling? What does it succeed at then? 'Coz if you remove the symbolism that Martel uses to make it into a parable (and that's what I'm going to settle on--it seems to have a definite religious lesson to teach us), it doesn't succeed at being much of a story.
Symbolism, metaphor, simile ... yes, these are good. These are the herbs and spices essential to concoct a delicious story. A good metaphor--even a sustained one--is used judiciously by a writer to add flavour, but never overwhelms the dish. An apt simile is like the garnish on the side of the plate--an aesthetically pleasing finishing touch. (If you're Tom Robbins, you can get away with making similes your appetizers, veg and dessert courses, but no one else can.)
Let these guys take over, and you've got a fable on your hands. Or maybe a parable. And that's even more unwieldy than having a tiger in your lifeboat.
If this one hadn't been so hyped, winning the Man Booker and all, I might have liked it marginally better. But as it was, I'm putting it in my contrarian views pile--good for you if you got it and liked it, but for me, I'll take Not Wanted On The Voyage any day. I have no idea what that one meant either, but at least it was clever, funny, whimsical and heart-breaking all at once. Now, there's a fable that could hold water. (less)
Plodded through the first half, but glad to have persisted. I didn't warm to the characters right away and Haddon took a while to develop their voices...morePlodded through the first half, but glad to have persisted. I didn't warm to the characters right away and Haddon took a while to develop their voices. Interesting, because characters were stuck in their ruts, and the writing itself seemed weighed down by that. Or perhaps, especially in comparison to The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time with its single character focus, Haddon had so many personalities on his hands that he needed a while to wrestle each of them into form and get them all moving in the right direction. In the first half, he seemed to be trying a little too hard to be profound.
Once their lives all started to disintegrate, especially when George started to truly lose it, things got interesting and very, very funny. George's pivotal scene in the bathtub was brilliantly rendered, and the novel picked up pace and started to cohere from that point on. The lead-up to and climax of the wedding scene was similarly fabulous, reading like a French farce.
A note on style: I loved (but again, only really noticed by the half-way point--was this intentional?) the step back in time and change of perspective at each chapter break as the story unfolded. The technique was not as overt and clearly-demarcated as Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, and more integrated with the main plot. The effect was one of truly being able to see the events from each character's perspective, and gaining empathy with each of them. The link to theme was therefore powerful, illustrating people bonded by blood and family ties, but feeling misunderstood, lonely and remote from each other because of their own lack of self-awareness and ability to empathize and communicate honestly with each other.
As the story went on, as the characters were growing closer to each other and gaining insight into their own motivations, the "steps back" became closer in time, which is perhaps why I only started to notice them at about the half-way point.
This one'll make a fine movie, I think. Is Hugh Grant old enough now to play George?
This was my first experience with José Saramago, who won a Nobel Prize for Literature for this novel, a harrowing journey to the depths of human depra...moreThis was my first experience with José Saramago, who won a Nobel Prize for Literature for this novel, a harrowing journey to the depths of human depravity–and human goodness–in the aftermath of societal breakdown.
The uniting metaphor of "the white blindness," which quickly afflicts all but the central protagonist (the doctor’s wife), is a metaphor for many different things, and what the reader brings to this is almost as important as what s/he takes away from it. Very, very similar in tone, content and pace, and even in the final uplift at the end, as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
The writing style is the first, most obvious feature that bears examination: embedded dialogue within long, unpunctuated paragraphs of text mimics thought more than speech. This technique serves to blur the distance between characters, and between descriptions of external events versus the internal response to them. The theme of interdependency among people brought together by a tragedy to which they are all susceptible is underscored forcefully by the writing style.
Despite the unique style, this novel is easy to read, if not an easy read. The pace is quick, and while there are distinct plot points that are central to the story unfolding, these are secondary to the psychological reality of the lives of the characters, and to their positions almost as archetypes in the story. It is not important what has happened to them, or why, but simply that it has happened and what effect it has on the human capacity for thinking, feeling and behaving in such circumstances, individually and collectively.
The book raises more questions than it answers, which is of course key to its power as a novel. Two weeks later, and I am still thinking about some of these images and metaphors.
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)
Re-read. A bit obtuse, almost experimental in places, but the central metaphor of the spire as a symbol of teetering faith (and disintegrating sanity)...moreRe-read. A bit obtuse, almost experimental in places, but the central metaphor of the spire as a symbol of teetering faith (and disintegrating sanity) for an arrogant, delusional priest is still as powerful as I remember it. This time around, I also was able to more clearly see the central conflict between Fr. Jocelin and Master Builder Roger Mason as one of faith versus science, which has even greater resonance today. What Golding achieves here is a comment, nested in high symbolism, that vision and progress - either spiritually or technologically - is often the product of madness; or leads to it. Or both. And it's difficult to tell the difference between genius and insanity.
There is a remarkable scene in which Fr. Jocelin climbs to the top of his not-yet-completed tower and is able to survey the land, looking down upon his parishioners as they go about their lives. The symbolism is multi-layered (throughout, but especially in this scene): Fr. Jocelin sets himself far above his people, looming like a false god (they have by now moved beyond fearing him to dismissing him as crazy and irrelevant). Remote and removed from the real lives of the people who look to him to provide comfort and spiritual guidance, Fr. Jocelin's neglect of his spiritual duty comes to be his downfall.
**spoiler alert** Some nice descriptions of man's bestial nature, especially likening main character Wade's physical appearance and psychology to, ear...more**spoiler alert** Some nice descriptions of man's bestial nature, especially likening main character Wade's physical appearance and psychology to, early on, Neanderthal man and later, a bear. The metaphor of the deer hunt had a lot of potential, but I think wasn't fully realized.
However, there were also extended periods of just plain bad writing or perhaps careless editing which, although I haven't read him in a while and my sensibilities may have changed, I don't recall as typical of Banks at all; quite the contrary in fact. E.g., a key paragraph uses the adjective "elegiac" twice; you can't use a word like that twice and get away with it, not even when trying to convey that the narrator is a wanna-be intellectual. There were frequent strained similes that almost worked, but didn't: e.g., burning timbers in a barn "fell in scarlet-and-gold chunks to the dirt floor, where they shattered and splashed like coins." I don't mind the splashing, but coins don't shatter--especially if they are burning. Also, just two sentences before this, we were caught up in the "loud, raucous music to the fire, a crackling erratic drumbeat against the steady howl of the wind...". I'm not connecting these two metaphors, nor connecting them to the action. Wade's father's body is being burned in this fire; shouldn't the language resonate with that?
Finally, the expositional hammer-over-the-head dialogue -- egads. The word "affliction" is used probably a dozen times (I wasn't bothering to take notes) -- ok, ok we get it: everyone's afflicted. Everyone's affected by violence. The causes are horrific and the consequences inevitable. But, in case we didn't get it, we get helpful dialogue to drive the point home, such as this between Rolphe, Wade's brother and the narrator, and Wade:
..." "So when Elbourne told me what Pop had done to you when you, too, were a child, I was suddenly terrified. It may have been a high price to pay, never having been carefree, but at least I managed to avoid being afflicted by that man's violence." "Wade laughed again. "That's what you think," he said.""
My experience with Banks' psychological studies of violence and catastrophe is that they typically focus on the community as a whole. Affliction goes (or attempts to go) into one character's head. In its attempt to be a psychological study of abuse and environment leading to the inevitable spiral down to a tragic conclusion, it did not succeed because we didn't see enough of Wade's torment--either the cause (the abuse itself) or the effects (we were repeatedly told Wade was violent, erratic -- yet there may have been only one scene in which we actually saw that). Also, there was no suspense. Wade's fixation on Jack was an obvious ruse to convey his increasing paranoia and delusion. I think the intent was to create ambiguity--did he? didn't he?--and therefore cause the reader to vacillate between whether Wade was being unfairly persecuted or was descending into violent madness. The effect was a wash.
The story was told second-hand by Wade's brother, Rolphe--the biggest failure of the book, imo. Even more awkward than an epistolary style, we are told much about Rolphe's method to get the 'real story' even though he was not a first-hand witness to the events. The narration was often intrusive and annoying in needing every so often to reassert why Rolphe knew certain things, and his own perspective on Wade's circumstances.
The POV distanced us from Wade, and from the reality of Wade's violence: that done to him, and that he was about to do. This choice in narration obviously is intentional, and had I liked the book either much less or much more, I'd try to figure out why Banks made that choice. But right now, it's not really worth it.
Another thing: way too much description of the New Hampshire woods. I grew up in a small town in Northern Ontario, I know intimately the psychological and physical landscape of freezing cold and snow for nine months of the year, and the despondency that ensues. Towns where there is nothing to do but drink, fight and fornicate, as the saying goes. Banks' description of this town and these people was well done, yes. But, while intending to be both metaphoric as well as causative of the personalities that survive there, there was too much description that simply slowed down the action. I think I said in one of my status updates that the book felt like what we are told freezing to death feels like: slow, numbing, not entirely unpleasant and with an inevitable certainty to it. After a while, you just don't care any more ... and you slip away.
**spoiler alert** First, I loved this book. I would head towards a five-star rating, but I haven't figured out whether this will be "desert island" ma...more**spoiler alert** First, I loved this book. I would head towards a five-star rating, but I haven't figured out whether this will be "desert island" material.
Second, I read this on a kindle-style e-reader on a plane, and as a result, I couldn't access the footnotes -- still haven't, although I will go back and see what they add to the experience, if anything. Couldn't write in the margins (so this review will be devoid of any specific quotations). Don't know any Spanish, and didn't have access to a translator -- didn't matter; got the clues from the context and my limited French. Also, know nothing about comic books or the Fantastic 4--can't contribute to the character mapping on that front. I don't like literal analogies or allusions anyway; and can't imagine that a comic book--or, err, pardon me "graphic novel" as they seem to be called these days--could or should add much in the way of illuminating these characters or defining the plot.
All that said, my experience of the novel is perhaps missing many layers that would add richness and complexity; or perhaps confusion and points of annoyance. But my extremely narrow reading experience did let me focus on the characters, their stories, their relationships with each other and their culture, socialization and politics, and the plot.
LOVED: the fukú and zafa, the magic realism, and the depiction of DR culture and politics as structures to build the plot and move the story along. Thought that the clear presentation of good and evil in DR politics contrasted nicely with the more ambiguous presentation in the main characters, where acts of goodness and those of evil (especially, Beli's) were much less clear. And there is a theme here--sounds trite to write it out--of not judging a book by its cover, or an individual by their looks, or even in some cases, by their acts.
LOVED: the extraordinary portrayal of all these vulnerable, hurt, abused and suffering characters, how they got that way and how they saw each other and themselves, mashed up together in a culture that, evidently, can be crushing in terms of the strictness of the standards one needs to meet to find love, study hard, do good work, experience life and basically just survive.
LOVED: The theme of self-determination and the possibility of change, the classic fate-versus-freewill struggle: does the fukú shape your fate, or can you define your own trajectory separate from it?
Oscar (the book and the character) was, for me, a deeply felt, complex portrait of the angst and tragic beauty of the misfit, the social outcast, the self-delusional, self-ascribed genius who--bereft of 'normal' social interaction and life experiences--acts on his own frustrated desires, dreams and wishes as though they are reality, makes tragic life choices that lead to a cycle of despair and ongoing dorkery. He obsessively dwells in a fantasy world created by others--through his comics, anime and sci-fi--and then creates fantasy worlds for himself through his ruminations, writing and unrequited desires.
(view spoiler)[These both protect him and further isolate him and in fact, lead to his demise through what he believes is a grand romantic gesture, one which can be read as Oscar finally taking his own fate into his own hands, but which was a completely foolish, stupid and unnecessary act born of yet another unfulfilled and delusional romantic fantasy. And the psychoanalyst in me says, also a suicide. (hide spoiler)]
Another thing I love about Oscar--as a character and as a story--is its feeling of inevitability. Not only because we are told from the cover onwards that he'll be dead by the end of the story, but also because Oscar can't change. Absolutely can't change, no matter how miserable, how lonely, or how much everyone around him--his sister, Yunior, La Inca, even Beli, in her own way--try to help him change. And even at the end, when he seems to have convinced himself that he HAS changed, he really hasn't--his final act, his return to the DR despite his knowledge of the danger he is in, is not an act of bravery (nor of cowardice) ... it is simply the inevitable playing out of the fukú, or if you don't believe that, the inevitable conclusion to a sad and pathetic life.
Oscar is, in fact, probably that part of all of us that we rage against, are repulsed by, flee from and are terrified that we were, are or will become. I wonder if responses to this book are more positive among those of us who identify and therefore sympathize with Oscar? Oscar is easy to pity, on the surface, and I bet many of us have pitied the Oscars of the world: and yet, in that pity is contained both mockery and guilt and a shameful, buried self-identification.
This is the brilliance of what Junot has created in Yunior (who IS the central character here, I wonder?), who displays that simultaneous attraction and repulsion, pity for and identification with Oscar. To me, Yunior is Diaz’s crowning achievement here (and if you buy that Yunior is Diaz, then you can probably analyze the arrogance and conceit that is in that, but let that not detract from the genius of his creation). Yunior, in depicting Oscar as a nerd who uses big words inappropriately and socializes strangely and alarmingly in general, but especially with girls and women, repeatedly lets slip his own insecurities and similarities to Oscar.
I am always very attracted to stories that hinge on choices deliberately made, and their opposite, random chance, and the influence that each of these has on characters’ lives. Oscar is resonant with all of these themes.
I really enjoyed the display of technique that Diaz shows in starting the story from the third-person omniscient narrator POV, and then us realizing that this is Yunior, then switching it up to tell the story from Lola’s first-person POV. Et cetera.
And finally, the relationship between Oscar and Lola, his older sister and ultimate protector/defender, and Oscar's own depression so exquisitely rendered by Diaz, with again that feeling of inevitability and despair, rang home loud and clear for me, and often brought me to tears on the plane as I was flipping electronically through the pages of these lives. ["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)
This is a wonderful, quiet but powerful book, with very rich characterization and an interesting structure. It uses a condensed "day-in-the-life" time...moreThis is a wonderful, quiet but powerful book, with very rich characterization and an interesting structure. It uses a condensed "day-in-the-life" timeline divided into three parts. The first part is the drive to the funeral that Maggie and Ira attend told from Maggie's POV; the second part the drive home told from Ira's; the third part the coming together of themes and events that occur along the way.
I esp. enjoyed how Tyler explores the approach-avoid/love-hate terrain of relationships, where patterns of behaviour and personality quirks are both minor annoyances that are overcome and add strength to the marriage, or fodder for misunderstandings that turn into irreconcilable rifts and split people apart.
The two marriages under scrutiny--Maggie's and Ira's mature and solidified; their son Jesse's and daughter-in-law Fiona's immature and currently broken--play off of each other illuminating both character and theme.
The "lessons" are in the details, choices and the slow unfolding of events, past present and future, along the way. The journey is as laconic and meandering as the late summer drive--a metaphor for marriage itself. A secondary theme is identity, and here too, there is exquisite poignancy in the revelation of each character's search for self-definition and the conclusions drawn. They search, too, for clarity and insight into what they mean to each other, what their marriage stands for and how the marriage has shaped their 'selves'.
Tyler has a unique talent for seamlessly weaving dialogue, characterization and theme together. She creates characters at once idiosyncratic and eccentric, but symbolic of our common humanity, too. It is a careful balancing act that, now that I've dipped back into her œuvre, I remember as emblematic of her writing. It has inspired me to read more of hers, and although I'm pretty sure The Accidental Tourist and this one, which won the Pulitzer, are Tyler in top form, I bet there are some less-well-known gems in there too. (less)
The immensely powerful lessons and themes at the core of each of these seemingly simple, but carefully constructed stories is what takes this collecti...moreThe immensely powerful lessons and themes at the core of each of these seemingly simple, but carefully constructed stories is what takes this collection from 4 into solid 5-star range for me. Each one encloses a fragile heart that beats with emotional truth. Each is tightly focused on a brief moment in time, a key turning point or choice, a scene or relationship, sometimes in just 2 or 3 pages, and without exception each packs an enormous emotional and intellectual wallop.
Case in point: Bowker's circling the lake for hours in "Speaking of Courage," ruminating on the past, the futility of expressing his pain, and then carrying that to its logical extreme. Bowker becomes the archetypical post-Vietnam vet in his isolation and inability to (re-)connect with life and those who love him after returning home. He carries the past with him as an anchor, and it eventually weighs him down. The quiet desperation of his individual struggle is palpable and paints in relief society's failure to nurture and reintegrate the many soldiers who fought in such an unpopular, and unjust, war. It took many platoons of Bowkers for us to realize what we had to do to lessen the pain of future generations of soldiers--starting with being able to hold simultaneously two previously irreconcilable beliefs: that we can be anti-war without being anti-soldier.
The nebulous, shape-shifting middle-ground that O'Brien carves out between real truth and fictional or emotional truth is aided by his 'break through the fourth wall' technique of naming a central character Tim O'Brien, while being explicit that it is not the author. But it is the author--kind of. It is the author as everyman, as the unknown soldier, as a part of our collective unconscious. Blurring the lines between truth and fiction transforms the stories from a memoirist's reminiscences to a morality play that resonates with every reader, not just those who wore/wear a uniform. And this is important, because too often war stories, even the most powerful ones, alienate the average reader by creating a closed society of pain, horror and shared experience that those who have not lived through a war first-hand cannot enter. And if we all can't share the horror and bear the burden equally, then we cannot heal and we cannot learn the lessons of history to avoid repeating them.
There is no such artificial barrier here in this collection of short stories that so evocatively describe the small and large cruelties of war, and the soul-destroying but also life-affirming possibilities inherent in facing random, unexpected death while fighting a war that neither the soldiers nor the general population believed in. O'Brien's explorations of courage and cowardice; camaraderie and cruelty; the friendships created and betrayed during war and after it are accessible to all. Where there is ambiguity of purpose, and lies to create a false justification for killing, there is apathy, depression and psychological damage. Character and integrity, or the lack of it--or in other words, human nature--is revealed.
I've not read anything else O'Brien has written (although I will be adding the rest of his work to my 'to-read' list), and so I may be wrong on this, but it is my sense that this is exactly the kind of writing about Vietnam that let a nation so badly scarred by the conflict begin the process of healing. There is a set of books and movies that escalated that process, and I suspect that this one--published in 1990--was among the most important.
In 2008, as the U.S. fights on in Iraq, these lessons will need to be re-taught and the healing will need to begin ... again. (less)