although i am mostly a fan of cutting-edge and very contemporary fiction, i also have a weak spot for victorian and edwardian class-conscious british...morealthough i am mostly a fan of cutting-edge and very contemporary fiction, i also have a weak spot for victorian and edwardian class-conscious british satirists, and it doesn't get much better when it comes to that than pg wodehouse. his series of wooster and jeeves tales have not only been adapted numerous times in all kinds of media, but even sparked the cultural understanding of "jeeves" automatically standing for a butler -- they're that well-known. highly worth checking out if you're just starting to get into the genre (as well as george bernard shaw and em forster), this should be on everyone's "classics" checked-off list.(less)
the classic first book of stories from one of america's premiere living humorists. dark, twisted, cringe-inducing at times, you'll nonetheless find yo...morethe classic first book of stories from one of america's premiere living humorists. dark, twisted, cringe-inducing at times, you'll nonetheless find yourself laughing out loud on almost every page here. a great, great introduction to sedaris' work.(less)
I'm admittedly a fan of many of Mark Twain's works; so which to write up here at my social network? So I picked this one, because of me growing up thr...moreI'm admittedly a fan of many of Mark Twain's works; so which to write up here at my social network? So I picked this one, because of me growing up three hours' south of Hannibal, Missouri, Twain's actual childhood hometown, which he paints a vivd picture of in this particular book, and which I visited numerous times as a child. And wow, where do you even begin with how great a writer Mark Twain was? Dark yet mainstream, bitter yet sunny, with a prose style that unbelievably still holds up well 100, 150 years later, this unashamedly pastoral novel was Twain's attempt to capture a bucolic lifestyle that even at the time was rapidly disappearing, and might as well be Middle Earth anymore for all us cellphone-sporting modern freaks. Not to mention, the erotically charged scenes with Tom and Becky lost in the caves, their last candle dwindling down to nothing, exist as some of the first writing ever to get my breathing going a little faster, if you know what I'm saying, and how can I not forever after love the novel for that?(less)
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of...more(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reposted here illegally.)
The CCLaP 100: In which over a two-year period I read a hundred so-called "classics," then write essays about whether I think they deserve the label This week: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain (1876) Book #6 of this essay series
The story in a nutshell: Designed specifically to be a popular example of the then-new American Pastoral novel, Tom Sawyer is Twain's look at an impossibly idyllic small-town childhood that never was, that never could be, in fact, based very loosely on a handful of real events that happened in his own childhood in Hannibal, Missouri (on the banks of the Mississippi River, about a four-hour drive north of St. Louis), but with each story sharpened and honed until they become too impossibly magical to be anything but fictional. As such, then, the book mostly concerns those subjects regarding childhood that adults most fondly look back on with nostalgia -- the sense of societal freedom, the sense of playful rebellion, the simplicity and elegance of pre-pubescent romance -- couched in an insanely whimsically perfect rural environment, one designed specifically to recall a kind of idealized frontier existence that most people even in 1876 had never actually experienced, much less all of us 132 years later.
In fact, our titular hero Tom pretty much stands for each and every element of a "noble childhood" that we all secretly wish we could've had -- a constant irritant to his legal guardian who is nonetheless clearly loved and constantly forgiven by her, clever hero to the rest of the neighborhood boys while still being a simple-minded romantic to the girls he's got a shinin' for. Throughout the first half of the novel, then, we follow Tom and his cohorts as they get in and out of a series of short-story-worthy jams; there's the Story of How Tom Convinced The Other Boys to Whitewash His Fence For Him, the Story of the Dog That Got Bit During Church And Made a Huge Racket, the Story of the Boys Who Ran Away and Played Pirates for a Week on a Mid-River Island But Then Found Out That Everyone In Town Thought They Were Dead So Decided To Attend Their Own Funeral. Yeah, impossibly romantic little stories about impossibly idyllic small-town life, pretty much the definition of a Pastoral novel. Add a more serious story to propel the second half, then, in which a couple of local drunks actually do commit a murder one night, with Tom and his badboy friend Huck Finn being the only secret witnesses, and you've got yourself a nice little morality tale as well, not to mention a great way to end the story (buried treasure!) and a fantastic way to set yourself up for further sequels.
The argument for it being a classic: As mentioned, one of the strongest arguments for Tom Sawyer being a classic is because it's one of the first and still best examples of the "American Pastoral" novel, an extremely important development in the cultural history of the Victorian Age that has unfortunately become a bit obscure in our times; for those who don't know, it was basically an artistic rebellion against the Industrial Age of the early 1800s, a group of writers and painters and thinkers who came together to decry the dehumanization of mechanized urban centers. Ironically, it was these same people who established what are now many of the best things about our modern cities, things like parks and libraries and zoning laws and all the other "radical" ideas that many people first laughed at when first proposed; as a complement to these forward-thinking theories, though, such artists also put together projects about rural small-town life that were designed deliberately as political statements, as little manifestos about how much better it is when you live in the countryside and breathe fresh air and grow your own food and make your own clothes.
The Pastoral movement first really caught on over in England*, where urban industrial growth proceeded a lot more quickly than in America, and where the detrimental effects of the age could be more rapidly seen; nonetheless, by the mid-1800s (and especially after the horrific Civil War of 1860-65), more and more Americans had started pining for this unique brand of entertainment as well, and pining for a "good ol' days" that had never really existed. This is what Twain built the entire first half of his career on, fans say, and it really doesn't get much better than Tom Sawyer for pure delightful small-town escapist entertainment; his later books might be better known, they say, more respected within the academic world, but it is these earlier Pastoral tales that first really caught on with the public at large, and made him the huge success he was.
The argument against: Of course, you can turn this argument straight around on its head; there's a very good reason, after all, that this book's sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (written ten years later) is the much more studied and analyzed of the two. And that's because Twain only grew into his role as "America's Greatest Political Satirist" over time, critics of this book argue; if you take a close look at his career, they say, you'll see that the majority of work he wrote in the first half of his career is either kitschy nostalgic housewife pabulum or smartass travelogues about how Americans pretty much hate everything and think they're better than everyone else. We've lost sight of this over the last century, the argument goes, but Twain wasn't really considered a "serious" writer until late in life and already a big success; I suppose you can think of it in terms of Steven Spielberg pre- and post-Schindler's List, with Tom Sawyer being the 1800s version of the popular but ultimately intellectually empty E.T..
My verdict: So let me first admit that I am probably too close to this book to be able to be completely objective about it; after all, I grew up just three hours away from the town of Hannibal where these events took place, have visited the town many times over the years, connected deeply with the book when a child precisely because of it taking place so close to where I lived, and in fact have probably now seen and read a dozen movie, television, comic-book and stage-play adaptations of the novel by now as well. (Why yes, even as late as the 1970s, in rural Missouri you could still find plenty of stage-play versions of Tom Sawyer each year, mostly Summerstock and other community productions.) I will always love this story because it will always remind me of my childhood, just as is the case I imagine with a whole lot of people out there; of nighttime barefoot runs through woods, of bizarre superstitious rituals held in the bottoms of muddy creek beds.
That said, it was certainly interesting to read it again as an adult for the first time, I think maybe the first time I've ever actually read the original novel from the first page to the last without stopping, because what its critics say really is true -- there really is just not much of substance at all to Tom Sawyer, other than a collection of amusing little stories about small-town life, held together with just the flimsiest of overall plots. In fact, the more I learn about Twain, the more I realize that his career really can be seen as two strikingly different halves; there is the first half, where Twain was not much more than a failed journalist but great storyteller, who started writing down these stories just because he didn't have much else better to do; and then there's the second half, when he's already famous and finally gets bitter and smart and political, as we now erroneously think of his entire career in our hazy collective memories. This doesn't prevent me from still loving Tom Sawyer, and still confidently labeling it a "classic" for its American Pastoral elements; it does give me a better understanding of it, though, in terms of Twain's overall career, and how we should see it as merely one step along a highly complex line the man walked when he was alive.
Is it a classic? Yes
*And in fact, the term "Pastoral" has actually been around since the 1500s (or the beginning of the Renaissance) and originally referred to stories specifically about shepherds; these anti-city writers of the Victorian Age sorta co-opted the term from the original, with the American wing then co-opting it from the Brits. (less)
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of C...more(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)
The CCLaP 100: In which I read a hundred so-called "classics" for the first time, then write reports on whether they deserve the label
Book #19: Candida, by George Bernard Shaw (1898)
The story in a nutshell: As one of many "comedies of manners" from the Victorian- and Edwardian-era playwright George Bernard Shaw, the actual storyline of today's book under review is much slighter than normal; it is not much more than a breezy 50-page play about a middle-class couple living in the suburban edge of London at the turn of the 20th century, a liberal activist minister and his smart-as-a-tack wife (the "Candida" of the play's title), as well as the young moon-eyed artist they know who has fallen in love with Candida himself. The actual plotline, then, is not much more than that of this minister husband and artist wooer arguing humorously for an hour over which of them loves Candida more, and of what type of man she obviously most needs in her life; Candida herself finally puts an end to the argument by patiently explaining that she doesn't exactly need a man at all, and that the two of them are pretty much morons. Seriously, that's about the entirety of Candida just from a plot standpoint; the main reason to still read and enjoy this script, then, is mostly for the sparkling wordplay and attention to language Shaw brings to the story, as well as its razor-sharp look at the issues and details making up day-to-day life for the British middle-class during these years.
The argument for it being a classic: You can't even mention "classic literature" without bringing up Shaw, his fans claim; this was an artist, after all, who both wrote and published new material literally from the 1880s to 1940s, painting an indelible portrait of what was at the time the most literary society on the planet, right during the years that novels and plays were at their most popular with mainstream society in general. By the end of his life, Shaw was considered a literary superhero by most, to this day still the only person in history to win both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar; that makes a whole ton of his old work worth going back and revisiting, argue his fans, and not only that but also spread out evenly over the course of his remarkable 60-year career. Take 1898's Candida, for example; although not as polished, say, as a late-career classic like Saint Joan, nor as popular as something like Pygmalion (itself adapted into the insanely popular Broadway musical My Fair Lady), it nonetheless was one of the first really big hits of Shaw's career, as well as a great record of what the times were actually like for an average middle-class citizen during the end of the Victorian Age. As such, then, its fans say, Candida rightly deserves to still be read and enjoyed on a regular basis to this day.
The argument against: Of course, as we've all learned over the course of this "CCLaP 100" essay series so far, although Victorian and Edwardian literature still continues to be legible and readable to modern eyes, that's a long way from being entertaining or simply not tedious; and critics will argue that Shaw's work is especially guilty of clunky aging, precisely because he wrote about the issues and pumped out the kinds of light, frothy stories that were so popular with contemporary audiences at the time. In fact, you could almost view Shaw as a brilliant television writer more than anything else, in a time when the television industry didn't actually exist; he did crank out over 60 plays over the course of his career, after all, most of which last no more than an hour or so, most of which deal with the same slight plots and family trivialities of a typical B-level network drama on the air right now. If you take a cold, hard look at Shaw's work, critics say, you'll see that they're mostly valuable anymore as historical documents, as records of the times and of what the average citizen of those times found important, a big part of why he was so popular to begin with; the plays themselves, though, are badly dated relics of the Victorian and Edwardian times from which they came, the exact thing a modern show is satirizing anymore whenever you see one of the characters affect a fake stagey British accent and yell, "I say, Lord Wiggelbottom, what a surprise to see you here, old chap!" Shaw's plays are important, the argument goes, just not worth most people these days taking the time to sit down and actually read.
My verdict: I have to admit, today I very quickly fall on the side of Shaw's critics, and in fact we can take the printed book version of Candida itself as strong evidence; I find it very telling that of the 140-page manuscript, only 52 of those pages are needed to print the actual play, a whopping 88 pages instead devoted to notes about the play, Shaw's preface to the play, interviews about the play, letters Shaw wrote about the play, etc etc. Because it's definitely true -- there's barely anything to Shaw's actual plays themselves, certainly not the strong three-act structure loaded with suspense and drama like we expect anymore from our live theatre, with their 60-volume cumulative effect being much more important these days than any of the individual volumes themselves. (Want even more evidence? Check out Shaw's Wikipedia bio, and notice that no one's yet bothered creating separate entries for over half his plays, and this from a website that includes detailed plot recaps for every episode of every television show in human history.) I agree that the cumulative effect is important, I want there to be no mistake -- I agree that Shaw is one of the most important figures in the history of the English-language arts and letters, and I agree that there is just a ton of information to be mined from his work concerning real life in the British Empire during both its Industrial-Age height and its eventual downfall. But man, let me admit this as well -- sheesh, was Candida a freaking chore to actually get through. ("I say, Lord Wiggelbottom, what a surprise to see you here, old chap!") Perhaps some of his later, weightier, more mature work (which I definitely plan on tackling in the future) will turn out to be more worth the effort; for now, though, I reluctantly conclude that what is more entertaining for most audience audience members would be an interesting book about Shaw and his work, not the work itself.
(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundr...more(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
The CCLaP 100: In which I read for the first time a hundred so-called "classics," then write reports on whether or not they deserve the label
Essay #69: The Thin Man (1934), by Dashiell Hammett
The story in a nutshell: Originally published in 1934 as what would turn out to be the last book of his career, Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man essentially takes the premise of his earlier "hardboiled" detective stories and turns it on its head; it's the story of former hardboiled detective Nick Charles, who four years previous had actually managed to get a feisty yet upper-class socialite to marry him, and who retired from the gumshoe business in order to be the financial manager of her large inherited portfolio of assets (including real estate, working mines and more). But on a rare vacation to New York (his former stomping grounds before moving to San Francisco after the wedding), Nick finds himself pulled into a new investigation against his will, as a scheming middle-aged former client and her manipulative daughter practically beg him to look into the disappearance of the alimony-late divorced former patron of the family (the "thin man" of the book's title), then proceed to tell the press, the police, and all the man's former enemies that Charles is officially on the case even though he's not, causing most of the darkly comedic messes that follow; and with his wife Nora never having gotten to see Nick in action before, she gleefully does everything she can to up the chaos even more, a bloodlusty gleam in her eye every time a gangster pulls a gun on them or during any other kind of life-threatening situation they seem to constantly find themselves in. As with most crime novels, the event-filled plot is best left as much a surprise as possible; but needless to say that many cocktails are imbibed, many bon mots are quipped, many punches are thrown and many complications are caused by the Charles' disobedient dog; and in the end it all works out okay for our newly famous heroes Nick and Nora, paving the way for the many movie and TV sequels to come.
The argument for it being a classic: There are two main arguments for why this should be a classic, one more important among genre fans and one more often cited by academes; because to tackle the bigger and more famous argument first, crime fans say that Hammett essentially invented the hardboiled detective genre nearly singlehandedly, paving the way for what is now a billion-dollar industry and arguably the one most popular literary genre of them all here in the early 2000s. (Arguably!) Now, of course, there had already been lots of books before concerning the committing of crimes and the solving of them -- in fact, as we've seen earlier in this essay series, it was the early Victorians who invented the premise with their so-called "Newgate novels" (named for a famous London jail where many of these books were set), which after a public morals uproar morphed into "sensation novels" (in which the naughty fun of Newgate stories were mixed with the moodiness of Gothic literature, and moved into the realm of middle-class homes), which then eventually morphed into the noir and hardboiled genres we know today -- which brings us to the second, more academic argument for why this is a classic: that Hammett was one of the first crime writers to bring the clipped, slang-heavy, rat-a-tat writing style of Early Modernism to the genre, both inspiring and being inspired by such non-genre peers as Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and Henry Miller, and basically bringing a kind of intellectual respect (if not the guilty-pleasure kind) to what had been the decidedly childish world of genre literature.
The argument against: Only one major one, but one that you see argued a lot; that Hammett simply wasn't a good enough writer to be considered for the classics canon, a ham-fisted semi-amateur who just happened to get popular because of accidentally being the first person to write in this hackneyed style, but who was easily superseded in quality by people like Raymond Chandler not even one generation later. Plus there's a minor argument as well that you see over and over from online critics -- that Hammett was the originator of the overly complicated crime-novel plot, a bad addition to this genre that essentially drove away an entire chunk of its former audience, and that led to the ridiculously convoluted "whodunit" storylines of most modern murder novels.
My verdict: So before anything else, let's just acknowledge that I should've actually reviewed Hammett's The Maltese Falcon if I had wanted a better look at what constituted the bulk of Hammett's career, in that The Thin Man is actually a lighthearted and comedic take on the overly serious, overly macho titles that make up most of his oeuvre; but it just so happens that I already read The Maltese Falcon when younger, and as regular readers remember, the entire original point of this CCLaP 100 series was to give me an excuse to read a hundred so-called classic novels that I never had before, simply so that I could become better informed as a book reviewer. And in fact, simply from a historical perspective, Hammett might be one of the most interesting writers I've come across yet in this essay series, because he tied together so many loose threads that existed in both the literary world and the popular culture in general, right at a time when these threads most needed tying together so to turn into something brand new for a "modern" time.
See, for those who don't know, even the concept itself of a "city police department" wasn't thought of for the first time until the 1830s; and until the 20th century, such police forces remained basically exercises in amateur buffoonery, leaving it to such cash-flush, discipline-heavy, forensics-obsessed private groups as the Pinkerton detective agency whenever a person actually needed a major crime solved. And Hammett just happened to have been a Pinkerton agent for years and years in his youth; so right at the beginning of the 20th century when these city police departments did finally start getting actually competent at their jobs, and all these former Pinkerton and other agents started going into business for themselves, shifting their focus to more domestic situations like philandering spouses and purloined jewelry, Hammett just happened to be in the exact right position and have the exact right experiences to start penning a series of stories romanticizing this new freelance activity, and it was his five novels and dozens of short stories that pretty much almost single-handedly established most of the "private eye" tropes we even think of anymore when we think of the genre.
I mean, yes, technically his critics are right, that Hammett's writing is overly pulpy and with overly complicated plots; but in many ways that's the entire point, that even the professor-loved Pulitzer winners of these years were adding such dramatic stylistic rebellions against Victorianism to their work, leading to the first time in the novel's history where the lowbrow and highbrow mixed so complexly that it was hard to tell them apart, which itself led both to the academic recognition of genre literature for the first time, and to the general shift in global literary dominance in those years to the United States (where this highbrow/lowbrow mixing largely took place, and became a source of endless fascination for culturally hamstrung European artists). It's the witty, fast-paced aspect of Hammett's work that is the very reason it should most be admired; and when combined with its profound effect on popular culture in general (like I said, Nick and Nora Charles eventually became the subjects of six extremely successful Hollywood movies and a 1950s television series, which then profoundly influenced nearly every other detective novel that came out in those years), plus Hammett's own tragically romantic real life (he lived for another 25 years after writing this, but medical problems exacerbated by his runaway alcoholism stopped him from finishing a single other book), is what leads me today to enthusiastically declare The Thin Man an undeniable classic that all of you should read at least once before you die.
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of C...more(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)
The CCLaP 100: In which I read for the first time a hundred so-called "literary classics," then write reports on whether or not they deserve the label
Essay #61: A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), by John Kennedy Toole
The story in a nutshell: Originally written in the 1960s, although not published until 1980 (but more on that in a bit), John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces is set in the Late Modernist New Orleans of 1963, and mostly follows the ignoble adventures of one Ignatius J. Reilly, perhaps the most unpleasant "hero" in the entire history of the narrative arts -- an absurdist amalgam of The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy and The Office's Michael Scott, this morbidly obese, self-deluded intellectual is just a critical mass of smugness, hyperbole and hypocrisy, a lazy, racist, self-satisfied gadabout who believes that every human invention since literally the Renaissance has been an apocalyptic detriment to society, and is sincerely flummoxed as to why the world doesn't just naturally accept him as their moral superior as he knows he is. Or, perhaps "racist" isn't the right word for Ignatius, since it's clear that he's a champion of blacks and gays in a pre-civil-rights Deep South, albeit for his own comically twisted reasons (he's sure that he can convince them to perpetuate a lumpen/luddite revolt that will revert America back to a pre-technological society, with of course himself as their Trotskyist leader); and to be frank, the main reason to even read this book is not for the minimalist plot holding it together (Ignatius's live-in mother needs money, forcing Ignatius to ineptly hold a series of bottom-rung jobs for the first time in his life), but rather for the way it languidly and with much love explores all the dark back alleys of '60s New Orleans itself, from the crumbling go-go district to pre-Stonewall gay soirees, black slums, the mentally ill and homeless crowd that is centered around a low-class hot dog franchise, and a lot more, as our disgusting but fascinating unreliable narrator takes us on a cracked tour of it all, never understanding why the "mongoloids and whores" won't simply defer to his own unquestioned brilliance.
The argument for it being a classic: The main reason this seems to be considered a classic is from that mesmerizing real-life history I referred to before; originally written in the Kennedy years, its utter rejection by the academic world was one of the contributing factors that led to Toole's mental breakdown and eventual suicide in 1969*, with his mother of all people finding a smeared carbon copy of the manuscript in a trunk and spending years literally begging people in the publishing industry to read it, with its eventual printing in 1980 resulting in not only a huge bestseller and an immediate new touchstone in the world of Southern fiction, but even with Toole posthumously winning the Pulitzer Prize a year later. But there's an important reason that people went so crazy for it once it was out, argue its fans, besides merely its interesting history; and that's because it's a dark comic masterpiece, they claim, a work truly ahead of its time whose reflections can be seen in our current popular culture no matter where you turn, and that heralded the birth of an entirely new literary genre (the curmudgeonly, sneakily charming, self-satisfied retro-obsessed lout) which has influenced everyone from Daniel Clowes to Paul Giamatti to literally an entire wing of full-time academic authors.
The argument against: There seems to be two main arguments against this being a classic, both of them ones we've discussed in this essay series before: first, like the criticism leveled at many of the genteel writers of the Edwardian period, critics say that neither Toole nor his one adult novel have had enough of an impact on the arts in general to be considered a classic, certainly a great book but more a modern fluke than anything else, one that will quickly be forgotten once the generation that was around when it was first published (i.e. us) are eventually dead and gone; and then second, like you sometimes also see from angry online reviewers of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, some people find the characters in A Confederacy of Dunces to be simply too repulsive to be worth reading about, an entire parade of unredeemable losers whose pathetic antics and Archie-Bunker-like casual prejudices are like fingernails on a chalkboard to some readers, making this not only a non-classic in their eyes but an abomination to be violently tossed across the room into the nearest trashcan.
My verdict: It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of so-called "anti-villain" tales, the term I came up with a few years ago for literary narrators who at first seem like quirky yet normal protagonists, but then become more and more monstrous as the story continues (for two excellent examples, see Sam Savage's Cry of the Sloth and Tod Wodicka's mindblowingly great And All Shall Be Well…); and now that I've read A Confederacy of Dunces, I realize that all these characters can be traced back to the douchbaggy master Ignatius himself, the ur-antivillain from which all the rest are merely pale copies. And so of course I not only adored this novel, but very quickly deemed it to be one of the greatest novels in history; but I also acknowledge that this is a highly personal, therefore highly biased opinion today, for a supposed "objective" series of write-ups like these CCLaP 100 essays, and that there's also a very strong and valid case to be made for this novel by despicable in some people's eyes, and for its critics to not only mildly dislike it but to hate it with a burning passion.
And indeed, even if you eventually end up loving the book yourself, admittedly there's a lot to get used to at the beginning of it that simply doesn't conform to the usual hallmarks of the three-act narrative story arc; we're not used to our novels' narrators being so thoroughly vile and detestable, certainly not used anymore to seeing racism and homophobia so openly displayed, and have been conditioned our entire lives to believe that a piece of literature isn't worth reading unless we find ourselves rooting for the main character to succeed at their quest, unless they are sympathetic enough that we care what happens to them. That's a tricky tightrope to straddle, to write a whole book about disgusting people but that makes us still compelled to find out what happens to them; but much like David Simon did with his utterly remarkable television show The Wire, Toole is a master here at making us interested in utterly unlikeable people, a comic tour-de-force that incidentally teaches us more about the coming countercultural revolution just around the historical corner than a thousand beat poets and proto-hippies all added together. Although in many ways the flash in the pan that its critics accuse it of being, in this case it's also hard to deny that A Confederacy of Dunces is a legitimate classic, if for nothing else the way its style and concepts have so thoroughly infiltrated our general culture by now, thirty years since its publication and now fifty years since its original penning.
*And by the way, despite the similarities, don't mistake this for an autobiographical novel; although the overweight Toole obviously suffered from mental problems himself, lived with his mother as an adult for a short time, and based a few of the plot developments on real experiences (for example, he once actually was a hot dog vendor who quickly ate all his profits), it's also clear that in the academic world he was a witty, popular, respected professor, in a steady relationship for most of his youth, who apparently did wicked impressions at cocktail parties, making his eventual mental breakdown and suicide even more tragic. (less)
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of C...more(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)
Like any self-respecting obsessive book nerd, at any given moment I'm actually in the process of reading three or four books simultaneously; there is the deeper and more complex novel, for example, that I will read only at a cafe during the day, a less complex one I read in more distracting environments like the bus, some giant nonfiction book that I will read only a page or two at a time in the bathroom, and then of course whatever book I'm reading in bed those days, which by definition tends to usually be the lightest and least consequential of them all, since I'm always falling asleep while reading it. And thus have I found myself reading more and more graphic novels these days, especially since the Chicago Public Library system started making them more of an acquisitional priority, although admittedly I don't write reviews for most of them, simply because most aren't weighty enough to justify a full analytical write-up.
Ah, but I did want to mention a delightful title I recently made my way through, comics-industry veteran Linda Medley's postmodern fairytale Castle Waiting, a self-published personal project of hers throughout the '90s that once won her the prestigious Xeric Grant. See, turns out that Medley actually studied folklore as well as illustration when in college, and so has spent a lot of time in her life asking weird questions of these old tales that other people usually don't; for example, what happened to Sleeping Beauty's kingdom once she got whisked away by Prince Charming? Turns out that this mammoth (500-page) book is what happened; the "Castle Waiting" mentioned in the title is no less than Sleeping Beauty's old castle fallen into disrepair, a semi-abandoned and semi-mythical place on the edge of the known world where all of folklore's most lovable losers have gathered, making a funky alternative life for themselves there and sharing their backstories Canterbury-Tales style.
And in fact, it's important to understand that Medley means for this entire situation to be a highly metaphorical one, reflecting her time when younger as part of the radical feminist circles of the San Francisco Bay area; these stories are not just cute and smart twists on traditional fairytales, but also a celebration of uniqueness, of alternative families, of women who don't fit the usual stereotypical feminine norms of mainstream society. (In fact, the entire last half of this book is dedicated to a story about a group of nuns who all have beards, and how they have built themselves a fortress to protect them from the abusive men they all ran away from; and if that's not a grand metaphor for a lot of what you see within radical-feminist circles in the Bay area, I don't know what is.) Sadly, financial burdens originally shut this self-published title down in 2001; happily, our friends at Fantagraphics have picked it up again as a regular series, and decided to put out this compendium of the self-published issues first to get everyone up to steam. It's a bit pricey, also a bit preachy at times; in general, though, it gets a solid recommendation from me, and especially to all you smart female genre fans who have always wanted to read a funny, warm fantasy tale written to exactly suit your particular sensibilities.