The Handmaid's Tale, a dystopia with heavy tones of feminism, tells the horrifying story of Offred, a Handmaid, a woman whose identity and agency areThe Handmaid's Tale, a dystopia with heavy tones of feminism, tells the horrifying story of Offred, a Handmaid, a woman whose identity and agency are torn from her, so that she might serve as a baby factory.
I call it horrifying but let me be clear: This is not the sharp horribleness you might feel when you witness a shouting match between your parents; when you break-up with a girlfriend or boyfriend; or when you read about the latest shooting on the news. No. The Handmaid's Tale summons the horribleness of the alarm clock. It's the horribleness of the smooth beauty of young skin growing loose and dry with age, the tick & tock of mortality. It's the horribleness of pulling into the same parking lot at the same building for the same job for ten years, it's the horribleness of political candidate after political candidate who see only power instead of people. It's the horrible grind of a world that could be better, but isn't. It's the horribleness of hopelessness.
That's the real genius, the real triumph of the Handmaid's Tale, the simple matter-of-fact mundanity of its horrible routine. The way it's told without bells and whistles.
I like, too, the calm and stately prose of the book, its focus on minute details, its understanding that life's little joys are what we most cherish... and miss most when they are gone.
But that is about all that I liked. The horribleness of this book felt, to this reader at least, much like the horribleness of a haunted house. Because sign after sign after sign tells you that the 'performers' in the haunted house will not touch you, will not hurt you in any way, the fear you experience isn't really fear. It's startlement.
The Handmaid's Tale is a book that operates by startling you. It is a book which, above all, is didactic, polemic, and preachy. It is the sermon of a woman who would use fear to warn against a society which would use fear to control you. Isn't that just a bit ironic? I even found one reviewer's response to be: "Question your government. Question your society. Question your spouse." Your spouse?! Is that the message of this book?
I have noticed that a great many books with "messages" - that is, those considered classics or Literature with a capital L - suffer from the same backwards, artificial feel that The Handmaid's Tale suffers from. Let me explain:
It is my experience as both writer and reader that good books must be written forward. You sketch a cast of characters, sometimes deeply and sometimes not, and you sketch a world and then you ignite it with the match of a conflict and then you step away. You use your mind, your daily experiences as a sort of incubator for the story. You guide the story if it gets too far off its path, but you do this only if you must. As you write the story, you gain a better understanding of your characters and their situation and you often go back to rewrite. But what you do not do is write the world in such a way as to make the plotting easy. You don't give traits to characters simply so they can function as a plot device. You don't do this because to do so imbues the story with an air of artificiality and intentionality that reeks of fast-food and political speeches.
The Handmaid's Tale was not written forward. It was written backwards. Margaret Atwood had a point set firmly in mind and then created a world to prove her point. It'd be like if I wanted to tell a story about how horrible ducks were and then just filled it with these stories of ducks murdering other ducks and subjugating each other and doing horrible things to each other. And, regardless of whether these things are true or possible or likely or unlikely or impossible, the story just doesn't feel real. It feels like bullshit and Hollywood and sham. It feels like what is called in logic a tautology. It just plods forward in a completely predictable fashion, toward a logical, foregone conclusion, offering neither surprise (it takes 100 pages for the first surprising thing to happen!) nor much insight.
And that is a damn shame because I love nothing more than a good book. The Handmaid's Tale is not a good book. It is a book with a Point and a book that is pointless: it will not change the minds of those who are already (or on the path to become...) oppressors of women. It will only confirm the opinions of those who live in fear of society and men, who view feminism in a militant rather than optimistic light. The Handmaid's Tale is a book that confronts nothing and resolves nothing. It paints a picture of a horrible world and does nothing with it....more
I was taking part in a wine tasting at a vineyard once and one of the staff was describing their wine, with the usual highfalutin language: "…aroma ofI was taking part in a wine tasting at a vineyard once and one of the staff was describing their wine, with the usual highfalutin language: "…aroma of the black-berry balanced by tannins and the subtle earthiness of sandlewood." One of the members of the group took a drink and said, "Oh yes, I can taste the sandlewood." After they left, I commented to my bartender, "How in the world do people know what sandlewood tastes like? I mean, on what occasion has someone had the opportunity to sample sandlewood?" She laughed and responded, "If you put it on the bottle, someone will always taste it."
I suspect the great depth so many people find in The Stranger is largely a result of the fact that they were told to look for it. Which is hilariously ironic: The Stranger is, after all, an existential text about a man who refuses to behave in the way that society expects him to behave. Yet here we are, a book celebrated for its depth by readers who, for the most part, fail to even grasp said depths. Is that not the definition of irony?
The thing of it is, I don’t dispute the depth of The Stranger, nor that it can be a good catalyst for thought and conversation. But does that make it a good book? Does that make it a ‘classic’? See, I actually am an Existentialist; I don’t believe in any intrinsic morality or meaning to the universe or life. Instead I believe the individual must create his own morality and meaning. As such, I believe the depth of a book always exists as a function of the reader's willingness to plumb (or invent) said depths, rather than any intrinsic quality of the work itself. You can have as deep a conversation about (or inspired by) Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey or the latest Grisham thriller or Danielle Steele romance as you can about The Stranger. (Note: I think The Stranger is vastly superior to those books, but it has little to do with philosophical depth, and more to do with their flatness of characterization, terrible writing, and uninteresting plotting).
Given that, with The Stranger stripped of its supposed philosophical depth, what remains for me to praise or critique? Shall I talk about characterization? All characters are archetypes or foils. How about the writing? Terse in the American style; serviceable but nothing a soldier would write home about. Plotting/suspense? Impossible when the protagonist is a passive sponge and an amoral jerk. Hm. How about the fact that it does a terrible job of actually expositing existentialist doctrine?
As I mentioned, I am actually an existentialist*, and I’m rather appalled by a great many of the conclusions that fellow reviewers and critics have drawn about The Stranger. Let me give you a few of them:
Mersault [the protagonist] is an Existentialist hero
So here’s what happens, in a nutshell: Mersault goes through life rather passively, existing more as a creature of gross senses than a sentient, thinking being. His mother dies in the beginning and he doesn’t feel much because there’s not much of a sensory feeling attached to it. Eventually, he ends up killing an Arab, somewhat randomly, and goes on trial.
The Stranger is a Hero’s journey. It’s only at the VERY VERY end – when he rants and raves at the priest – that he actually becomes what one could conceivably call ‘an existentialist hero.’
Frankly, it appalls me that people think Mersault is even an existentialist at all. Mersault is a sociopath and an idiot. Existentialism is not nihilism; it’s not about being a blank void of a human being, which is what Mersault is. He’s lazy and a coward. Failing to assign meaning to anything, he allows society and the people around him to assign meaning for him. Thus he loses his freedom.
Instead existentialism is about having the courage and the presence/willingness of mind to ignore the values that society attempts to place upon you and instead create your own. It’s very much a life-affirming philosophy, not nihilistic in tone like The Stranger makes it out to be. And it doesn’t even have to be anti-society, like The Stranger makes it out to be. The pure existentialist is a non-conformist, as opposed to an anti-conformist. The pure existentialist neither follows the crowd in jumping off the bridge NOR fails to follow the crowd in jumping off the bridge. He stops and thinks about it first and then decides. There are a great many aspects to society & civilization which are good. The unbiased existentialist can see this and adopts them.
Mersault is put on trial for failing to conform to society
Certainly Camus may have intended it as such, and it is easy to read it the way.
But honestly that’s stupid. It requires a willing ignorance in forgetting the fact that Mersault would never been on trial in the first place had he not committed murder.
Existentialism requires atheism
It’s true that Camus believed that making the ‘leap of faith’ in response to the absurd nature of reality was something of a cop-out. He believed following any religion caused a critical corruption in your free-will/free-thinking capacities.
I personally am agnostic, but I disagree with his claims. There’s nothing intrinsically impossible about investigating a religion and finding it good and then choosing, of your own free will, to follow it. Sure, adopting a religion wholesale is a foolish idea. But then so is adopting ANYTHING wholesale, including Camus’ own Absurdist doctrine. There’s nothing wrong with using religion (or the holy book of a religion) as a foundation for one’s interface with reality.
I feel like Mersault, an outsider
This particular statement frightens me! Even Camus himself intended to initially portray Mersault as a soulless being, a pure sense fiend, like a leaf merely following the current of the river which is society.
Mersault is a bad human being. He’s not some courageous non-conformist.
I keep seeing this false dichotomy in reviews and responses to The Stranger. This notion you can either be A) a conformist, a mere cog in society or B) you have to be a heartless, amoral sociopath like Mersault. Nope. It is more than possible to be a non-conformist AND a friendly, caring, kind human being.
So it rather disturbs me, when I keep seeing teenagers or even adults, raise up The Stranger as this, like, bible of anti-society, anti-authority. It isn’t. Not only did they miss the point of this book, but they are living a life in a way that, very likely, will be unrewarding, spiritually, emotionally, materially.
Basically, I think The Stranger is a mediocre book because, without its philosophical underpinnings, it’s merely mediocre. And even with its philosophical depths, it misrepresents existentialism and inadvertently lionizes emotional & intellectual laziness and jerkface-ness. It (apparently) leads to an interpretation that is nihilistic and anti-society, leading readers into The Stranger’s figurative jail, when I suspect Camus meant to show people the way out of it. Whoops!
*I was an existentialist before I had ever even heard the term; I obviously have my own brand & version of it. Still, I used the term throughout to concisely explain my stance. Ah the limitations of language! C’est la vie!...more
Just, ah, terminated Beloved by Toni Morrison and oh how I was disappointed by it.
Now I am faced with the daunting task of writing a negative review fJust, ah, terminated Beloved by Toni Morrison and oh how I was disappointed by it.
Now I am faced with the daunting task of writing a negative review for a book that is beloved not just in name but by the masses, or at least the great storm-eyed literati and those who lionize them.
Though I have never hidden my dislike of them, I have always held a great respect for the literati, the academia, the magi up in their towers. I sometimes see this notion that they are out of touch with the 'common man.' Maybe. I've always been a little vague on what constitutes a common and uncommon person. But I suppose I understand the sentiment and I don't think it's correct.
I think the literati should be likened to Buddhas. Whereas Buddhas have obtained emotional mastery, the academic elite have obtained intellectual mastery. They control their minds and their opinions. Such people might sit through, say, The Dark Knight Rises and be entertained yet nevertheless possess the distance of mind to critique it for its faults. Such people can both love a thing and hate a thing at the same time - not just for brief flares of emotion, but for sustained periods of time. Months, years, lifetimes. Such people do not lose focus, not easily anyway; they can spend five years analyzing a single text or stare through the claustrophobic lens of a microscope for hours upon hours.
That is nothing minor, and you have to respect it. I'd even go so far as to say I agree with it. Your mind and your feelings are yours; even if you cannot control them, you should, in the end, be the one who opens or closes the door on them.
Certainly I am mature enough now that I control my like or dislike of things, it is no longer some wave that simply crashes upon me and I must either accept it or drown. As I read Beloved, there were a few instances where I stopped and said to myself, "I could find this novel really wonderful." Like the literati, I have cultivated an objective, maybe even cold, outlook on things. There are parts of it worthy of its Pultizer AND Nobel prizes. I can see this.
But then I know also that there are parts of ALL things worthy of respect, if not love, and certainly amazement, if not wonder. A nuclear explosion is a terrible thing, yet is it not wondrous that we have managed to harness the power of the stars? A suicide bombing is horrible, but consider the sheer strength of conviction a person must possess to end his own life for an ultimately abstract ideal. Even murderers and rapists and those who perpetrate awful massacres have a little spark in them. Evil, no doubt, yet you need only walk into the Horror section of your nearest video rental store to find row upon row upon row of the depiction of such deeds. There is something about violence that is so very human and only a fool would claim otherwise.
But the presence of good does not make something/someone wholly good, no more than the presence of evil makes something/someone wholly evil.
Is this true of quality as well? Is quality purely a matter of opinion? Is it some vast nebula that can never be charted, only explored largely at random?
I reject absolute relativism, whether it be in terms of morality or quality of literature. Of course I respect how a book read on a cheerful, summer day might alter the reader's perception of its quality toward the better and how a book read on a crowded, dirty subway might alter the reader's perception of its quality toward the worse (or, for some, better). Yet there are certain principles which clearly mark good writing and those which mark bad writing.
For simplicity sake, let me borrow the words of writer Richard Bausch and name two requirements of good literature: Never be boring. Never be muddy.
I wasn't particularly entertained by Beloved but I would never call it boring. But muddy? Ah, yes.
And this is where I believe the literati are lead astray. There is a difference between obscurity and depth, a difference between an honest look at human nature and the undisciplined pandering of human misery. There's just so much STUFF in Beloved. Themes, motifs, tonal and style shifts, surrealism, magical realism, stream-of-consciousness, metaphors, hard-hitting images of rape and slavery. No one can deny that.
But it's not particularly well-blended. It's like a child who thought a gourmet meal could be made by taking a filet mignon, asparagus, pepper, butter, fresh baked Italian round, olive oil, a fine Malbec and throwing it into a blender. But it can't, of course. Every gourmet chef understands that it's not the principal components that make a good meal but how they are combined and how they are presented.
Let me try to state it more plainly:
The principle issue with Beloved is that Toni Morrison is a fine writer whose style (at least in Beloved) lacks discipline. Point-of-view jumps all over the place, in a manner that I found least enjoyable to the reader and most convenient to the writer. Need to explain another character's perception of an event? Switch to em! Never you mind that much of life's love and conflict come from the unbridgeable distances between our minds.
The book's suspense and forward momentum are crippled. There's no sense of... free-fall in Beloved; I liken opening a good book to Alice right before she enters wonderland. I'm on a quick jaunt and suddenly there's a tunnel and down I go! There's a bottom down there, some grand culmination, some grand climax. I know this because I know how gravity works but more importantly I can feel it.
I felt none of that in Beloved. It's not that there weren't mysteries or genuine emotions at stake here. Rather it was that lack of discipline again. Just when I would build a reading fervor, Toni would handicap it by switching to an annoying stream-of-consciousness that wasn't present for the first 200 pages of the book. Five page paragraphs? No problem.
What dealt the final blow to my relationship with this book was this paragraph, which I will attempt to copy as exactly as I can:
"We are not crouching now we are standing but my legs are like my dead man's eyes I cannot fall because there is no room to the men without skin are making loud noises I am not dead the bread is sea-colored I am too hungry to eat it the sun closes my eyes those able to die are in a pile I cannot find my man the one whose teeth I have loved a hot thing the little hill of dead people a hot thing the men without skin push them through wit poles the woman is there with the face I want the face that is mine they fall into the sea which is the color of bread she has nothing in her ears if I had the teeth of the man who died on my face I would bite the circle around her neck bite it away I know she does not like it now there is room to crouch and to watch the crouching others it is the crouching that is now always now inside the woman with my face in the sea a hot thing"
Oh the sheer fucking arrogance of a writer who believes she can approximate human emotion with syntactical gimmickery.
NO. No writer. You cannot force emotion upon me. I am the reader, you are just the writer. You build the path, but I walk it. And this is no path I care to walk. It is a meandering nonsensical path with waterfalls and lilies thrown willy-nilly by a gardener who understands the images of emotions but not the flow.
Already I can foresee the response to that claim, that if anything her meandering narrative & style have perfectly captured the way people actually think, the fragmented narrative of our minds and memories, especially when they are tinged blue and red with deep emotion. I concede that some people may think that way.
But literature is not life. Literature is a telescope which looks at life from a distance and this particular telescope? It's got a foggy lens. Its creator should have cared less about the fanciful engravings on the side and more about its fundamental inner-workings. Perhaps then we could have looked upon the star in all of its mighty glory instead of being blinded by a grand light and simply assuming that beyond it must be something mighty and glorious....more
Sharp. This book is sharp. The writing is sharp and noir. Through and through, to its bones, the book is noir. It exudes atmosphere, dames, gams, whisSharp. This book is sharp. The writing is sharp and noir. Through and through, to its bones, the book is noir. It exudes atmosphere, dames, gams, whiskey, chrome revolvers, left-hooks, corruption, purple carpet, split lips, stolen kisses, flickering lights, and rain that never stops.
In some ways this is good and in other ways it's bad. Mostly it's good, but let me start with the bad. The plot and characters are handicapped by the conventions of the genre, something which Chandler himself acknowledged when he wrote: "To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every writer who is not a hopeless hack." This is further compounded by the fact that Chandler helped create the genre: at the time, his gruff, realistic, human detective Philip Marlowe (a far cry from the many peppy, whimsical Sherlock-imitations) was new and refreshing. Sadly, it's not anymore, and there's not much you can do about it. You can remind yourself that it was new and refreshing all you want but that don't change your gut reaction. Furthermore, Chandler's style felt, at times, fake, a little forced. Some descriptions and no small amount of dialogue are so VERY noir and so very unnatural. I find it ironic that an author who advocated writing "realistic" mysteries so readily utilized such stylized dialogue. Like Oscar Wilde's, his dialogue is witty, amusing, and sharp, but it's not realistic:
"Alcohol is like love," he said. "The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off."
"Is that bad?" I asked him.
"It’s excitement of a high order, but it’s an impure emotion—impure in the aesthetic sense. I’m not sneering at sex. It’s necessary and it doesn’t have to be ugly. But it always has to be managed. Making it glamorous is a billion-dollar industry and it costs every cent of it."
But then again who cares about the reality? It's great fun to read. There is a distinct pleasure in reading Chandler's clean and wonderful prose. Viewed as literature in the whole, it's flawed. But within the genre, it's perfect, just perfect. The first chapter alone is filled with startling, enjoyable writing:
-“Sold it, darling? How do you mean?” She slid away from him along the seat but her voice slid away a lot farther than that.
-“Oh, I see.” A slice of spumoni wouldn’t have melted on her now.
-The girl slid under the wheel. “He gets so goddam English when he’s loaded,” she said in a stainless-steel voice. “Thanks for catching him.”
It's not a perfect book. Its flaw are not unavoidable and it is at times over-written. The actions of characters occasionally left me a bit incredulous. Like a zombie movie in which the protagonists consistently make the poor decision to wander into dark stores and alleys, this left the forward momentum of the plot feeling contrived and artificial. But all said, these are minor complaints, something you simply have to accept if you're going to read and enjoy noir literature. Read the book, there's little reason not to....more
To the Lighthouse is a book best read in relaxing, desultory circumstances - perhaps on the beach, while the waves gently nibble on your toes, or atopTo the Lighthouse is a book best read in relaxing, desultory circumstances - perhaps on the beach, while the waves gently nibble on your toes, or atop some mountain veranda, whilst seated before a cozy fire, or perhaps on a bench in some hidden garden, surrounded by lillies and roses and the scents of spring. But then what activity is not enjoyable in all of those circumstances? Baking cookies or writing a dissertation or being stabbed to death, which of these is not superior in exotic, relaxing climes?
In plainer language, I mean that To the Lighthouse is a book heavy on thought and light on plot. The conflicts, though sometimes hard to find, are certainly there, but the plot is almost nil: it exists almost entirely in subjectivity, in the thoughts of the characters.
As such, this is a book that is for the philosophers, the literati, the professors, the erudites, the pretentious, and the poets. This is a book which functions primarily as a catalyst for your own thoughts, as a mirror into your own self - you read it and consider your own life so if there's not much there, if you are not gifted (or cursed) with introspection, then you may very well find nothing of worth in these pages. There is no vicarious adventure here, there is only meditation and contemplation.
This presents a conundrum for me. I opened this book, saw immediately what type of book it was, put it down, then picked it up, suddenly fearful that my mind had regressed, that I was no longer capable of handling what might be called "sophisticated books," that I had somehow devolved into a story-fiend, searching only for the quick fix of a thriller. After finishing the book (and, I must admit, glad that I did - the stylistic elements of the writing are fabulous), I realized that this wasn't the case. Rather it was this conundrum: if the book's depth must ultimately come from me, from harmonies and echoes of my own philosophical musings, then why need I bother with the book? The simple truth is that I needn't; that, if so desired, I could just as easily watch a cardinal in flight and have as deep and profitable (which is to say completely profitless) meditations as when I read this book. Not everyone is able to set aside such driftless, frivolous time for simple thought. But I can, so I ask: What then, is the point of reading this book?
I could write of Woolf’s lyrical style, the way her metaphors flow like sunflowers perking up in a gentle summer breeze, how they do not make strict logical sense, how you will read them and might recall distantly how, once, you saw something entirely mundane, like a child chasing a rabbit through tall stalks of golden grain, and felt a vague sense of importance, of connectedness, of some greater meaning of it all. I might mention the incredible complexity of her scenes -- for this 200+ page book covers a mere two days (albeit separated by ten years) -- and how deep and realistic are the thoughts of her characters. I might mention how pertinent are her portrayals of gender imbalances, of man’s seemingly inexhaustible thirst for feminine sympathy, how men need their women to give meaning to their lives. I might speak of how this novel so accurately portrays the impossible emotional and cognitive distances that separate people and the ways in which family and lovers try to bridge them.
But to delve more deeply into these admirable qualities of the book would be to suggest something which is not true: that the book does have a point. Because for all of the immense writing prowess that Woolf displays here, this story, so unnecessarily dense, accomplishes no more than solidifying beliefs already held. If you believe in the ideas portrayed here (perhaps you’ve simply been unable to find the language with which to express them) then you will now accept them as divine truth. But if you do not, and in many cases I did not, then what? What is it that I have gained? I have not been instructed in any new knowledge or philosophy -- I have not, to use the language of the book, been given a boost to move from a philosophical comprehension level of Q to a level of R. I have only been slightly entertained. I have not been transported by the richly detailed, but ultimately mundane, life presented here. My imagination has not been whetted, has not been stoked. What then, I ask?
I must also add that Virginia Woolf’s use of pronouns was exceedingly irritating; they’re like cars driven by Italians. They come swerving, out of nowhere, bash into you, and then speed away, their drivers cursing heartily and unintelligbly. You feel vaguely that there was something you ought to have known or done differently, but the truth is that, nope, they're just crazy. ‘He,’ and ‘she,’ and ‘it’ will abound, with an antecedent that can often only be located by irksome sleuthing....more
Treasure Island is a standard adventure story, which has been copied so often that, while it may have been original when it was first written, it hardTreasure Island is a standard adventure story, which has been copied so often that, while it may have been original when it was first written, it hardly is today. That is the nature of books and time: they become obsolete, they do not stand the test of time.
Treasure Island, however, hardly fails the test of time. If you haven't read it, I would recommend you do so. It's a swift, pleasant read that, yes, feels a bit shallow, but it has plenty of charms to make up for that....more