Really well-written, tightly structured, etc. Great characters. Lots of intriguing thematic stuff, and not just about good and evil, though most of thReally well-written, tightly structured, etc. Great characters. Lots of intriguing thematic stuff, and not just about good and evil, though most of the other stuff ties into that. Fascinating with respect to its treatment of the intellect and its dimensions, and its treatment of psychology more generally, this novel.
It's a very well-plotted and told story, but the characters make this book. Hannibal Lecter is only a minor character with respect to the number of paIt's a very well-plotted and told story, but the characters make this book. Hannibal Lecter is only a minor character with respect to the number of pages he's on etc., but he is so compelling and finely rendered a character that his presence fills the book, and occurs, at least to me, as a crucial point of comparison with Dollarhyde and Graham. Dollarhyde is one of the eeriest literary antagonists I've come across. Harris, a crime journalist before he was a novelist, convinces of his knowledge of criminal psychology, which is really usually not, as I suppose some readers of Important Literary Fiction may want it to be, particularly subtle and complex. Lust murderers will usually focus their violence on their victims' genitalia, for example. See, not real subtle. Most of them suffered some form of abuse as children. See, not too complex. But Harris pulls off the trick of rendering Dollarhyde's psyche not too simply. Dollarhyde is a compelling fictional character, in other words. The main intertexts of the novel, Blake's red dragon paintings, are a well-chosen point of obsession for Dollarhyde.
And where Harris distinguishes himself, apart from the novel's detail-laden, economical, and, when necessary, stylish prose, is in his grasp on the common ground between murderers and non-murderers. It's Dollarhyde's humanity that makes his actions all the more horrifying, and it's Harris' evocation of the similarities between some of Dollarhyde's thought patterns and those of many, possibly most other humans, especially men, that gives rise to the deeply unsettling nature and, yes, social relevance of this book. There is little here of the pure-inhuman-monster-type villainy, and also thankfully the victims are not mere props. Dollarhyde's emotions that give rise to the central events and psychological points of the novel are common human emotions. His lust for power, his insecurity, his sadness, his internal conflicts, his desire for and fear of the opposite sex are all consistent features of our social landscape and internal lives, perhaps not for all of us, but for enough of us that we've all confronted and understood the presence of these emotions in our lives, whether in us or in people we've known. And Harris paints our protagonist Will Graham's psychological portrait in similar colours, but maybe different shades is all. What's really interesting if you're paying attention is how a lot of what does actually separate Graham from Dollarhyde, or protagonist from antagonist, or, if you will, good from evil, is in how he focuses the emotions he shares with Dollarhyde, some rooted in a shared history of suffering horrific violence, and that manner of focusing has a lot to do with appreciating human contact and relationships, and doing things for others instead of for yourself.
The effect of all this is that Red Dragon pulsates with humanity. It is a book about the violence and horror of humanity, not the violence and horror of some inhuman others who intrude into our peaceful lives. Whenever Harris sets up such images, he then deconstructs them.
And the effect of that is that the book is genuine horror. It is really uncomfortable to encounter, and the violence feels real and brutal and gruesome in a way most books of I guess what might be considered this sort don't.
But it's also just incredibly captivating, in I guess what people call a 'page-turner' kinda way. So, best of both worlds kinda deal. Of course, many readers of Important Literary Fiction wouldn't go anywhere near this book, but it's probably way better than a lot of the books those readers pay attention to. Others might be put off by this book because TV especially is so supersaturated with crime genre things dealing with serial killers, but that's no more reason to ignore at least the first two of Harris' books with Lecter than it is to ignore Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, and I guess I'll end with saying isn't it nice that movies THAT good don't get ignored by your aficionado types the way books THIS good do?...more
Really good. Like a 70s version of Bret Easton Ellis, but more acute and human. Doesn't hit quite like Steps (which I'll reread soon) does, but is simReally good. Like a 70s version of Bret Easton Ellis, but more acute and human. Doesn't hit quite like Steps (which I'll reread soon) does, but is similarly creepy and gets-under-your-skin-y. ...more
"If what's always distinguished bad writing--flat characters, a narrative world that's clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.--is also a description"If what's always distinguished bad writing--flat characters, a narrative world that's clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.--is also a description of today's world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then [Bret:] Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we'd probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it'd find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it."
- David Foster Wallace
I'm a huge fan of DFW and his writing and , but while he's right about everything he wrote about in the quote above, it's also more a description of things that are/were problematic in contemporary literature than it is an astute or particularly cogent dismissal of the artistic quality of Ellis' work, which I've seen certain types of people resort to that quote as.
Less Than Zero's prose style is spare and neat. It is typical Ellis deadpan, but much more evocative than some of his later work. The characters are not flatly rendered, but rather are convincingly flat. Ellis writes like an artful documentarian from the point of view of an 18 year old participant in the debauched, empty lifestyle of the rich and spoiled in early 80's LA. There's something creepy and dark and unique about that approach. It's an excellent debut novel by a 21 year old specifically because it doesn't feel much like reading a typical novel. The lack of comment or description or emotion results in a rare sort of anhedonia in the act of reading, while the successful and artful employment of the present tense lends the narration an immediacy at odds with the aimlessness and purposelessness of the novel's characters and events.
Unlike some of Ellis' other work, Less Than Zero is an extraordinarily accomplished novel, and very carefully crafted. There's not a hint of laziness about the thing. It is written with confidence and care well beyond the reach of most published writers, let alone aspiring writers in their late teens and early twenties.
It's also not really a novel for academia. It's not, I think, to be pared to its thematic and symbolic components, or to be given an existential reading (as Nicki Sahlin did reasonably well). Some literary critics outside of academia have been harsh on the novel for a sort of pointlessness vaguely similar to what DFW is talking about in that quote I began this little write-up with. They're also not really getting at anything worth talking about with the book.
Less Than Zero, really, is all about the reader's reaction. It's a novel which, fairly smart though it is, is aiming much more of an emotional than an intellectual pitch. The spare, stark presentation is bound to have its fans and its non-fans. If you just don't care about anything in Less than Zero, there's not much else to talk about. I don't think there's any hidden meaning in the novel. I think there's just what's on the page, this oft brutal, very plain but crisp and evocative documentation of emptiness and shallowness and badness.
It works for me. By that I mean that I think Ellis crafts an evocative picture and lets us do what we want with said picture. If I just say that it is vicious criticism of the world depicted in the novel I'd be right, but there would also really be no point to my saying that. What matters here is how you feel while reading this novel. I don't think Less Than Zero is sensational or over the top or ironically shallow in the way that some of Ellis' own later work (or that of the third rate loser version of Ellis, Palahniuk) is. It's a finely crafted, exquisitely crafted even, novel. Astonishing for a debut.
Of course DFW is mostly right about Ellis. There's no real astuteness or diagnosis here, and certainly no intelligent treatment of the very serious questions that arise. It's hard to deny that Infinite Jest, which is about, really, many of the same things that Less Than Zero is about, is a far superior and more ambitious treatment of the real issues at hand.
In fact, Ellis doesn't even really tackle the issues at hand, something easily excused but not really justified. I say he doesn't do so because he doesn't really have the talent or the guts to. Others may see things differently.
Either way, Less Than Zero is effective and visceral and disturbing and stark and spare and real. It does what it set out to do well. For that, I think it's really, really good.
With Ellis as a whole and as regards the ultimate social and literary value of this work outside of itself, I'm not as sold....more
I definitely look down on Douglas Coupland. He says he's not CanLit, and that's true. For all its flaws and unreasonable glitz, the CanLit establishmeI definitely look down on Douglas Coupland. He says he's not CanLit, and that's true. For all its flaws and unreasonable glitz, the CanLit establishment has high standards for prose and evocation. I just got done reading [i:]Girlfriend in a Coma[/i:], and it's just not the work of a particularly good writer. The problems are fundamental, not specific to this work. I completley buy that things like [i:]Microserfs[/i:] and [i:]jPod[/i:] are probably better than this. I buy that because I gather that they are just sort of light and simple reads about some form of office drone, slave to technology, etc. etc. Coupland can be funny, and he's not ridiculously incompetent, but [i:]Girlfriend in a Coma[/i:] ensures that I won't read [i:]Hey Nostradamus![/b:] anytime soon, because his handling of anything serious is pathetic, and his handling of even basic emotions is clumsy and cluttered. The dialogue is especially bad, though it gives me more confidence. If a guy who writes such false and silly dialogue and such flat characters can be a publishing sensation, some of us literary minnows may become a rising star at some point. The first part of the novel is weak enough, but the apocalyptic turn it takes reduces the novel as a whole to rubble. Coupland can't handle an evocation of sex, so what made him think he could tackle the essential mysteries of life? The finale is one of the most hilariously misguided and stupid things I've ever read....more
Cohen's prose is generous yet contained, and so exquisitely evocative and sensual that reading The Favourite Game in a short period of time, as I did,Cohen's prose is generous yet contained, and so exquisitely evocative and sensual that reading The Favourite Game in a short period of time, as I did, in just over five hours, begins to feel much like the hours-long embrace of passionate young lovers, punctuated by fevered outbursts of raw sexuality. Putting the book down, at its end, feels like one last tight hug and tender kiss at a door, before the young lovers lose one another for an unthinkable, no matter how short, time.
The easy way to talk about Cohen's debut novel is to speak of it as somewhat autobiographical. While Cohen and Breavman may share several details of their lives, it's just not very useful to concentrate on such things while talking about this novel. Breavman may not be a very likable character, and Cohen frequently writes him in a sort of wistfully satirical tone, less viciously critical than regretfully sad, but he is a complex and rich character. The novel, though mostly written in a third-person voice, also seems to be mostly from the perspective of Breavman, and as such, the oddly... biased? One-dimensional? characterization of most of the other characters in The Favourite Game makes logical and emotional sense.
The obvious comparisons to Catcher in the Rye and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man aren't misguided, but they're still pointless. Does it matter that Breavman is similar to Caulfield, except more grown up for much of this novel's length? Do we have to compare this book to the most well-known example of its genre? These comparisons weaken the case for The Favourite Game to be taken seriously in its own right as an important debut novel and not the side project of a poet who moonlit as a novelist in the 1960's.
Indeed, outside of Canada, this novel doesn't appear to be widely studied at all. It has a lot of interesting things to say, indirectly and not confrontationally, about issues of Canadian identity and character, and remains astonishingly relevant and true so many years after it was written. It remains one of the great urban Canadian novels in a literary scene so famed and praised for its rural literature, a literature which denies the reality of (by far) most Canadians' lives. Still, much of the novel is universal in its relevance. The emphasis on ethnic identity, the sensuality, the obsessions which take over Brevman's poetic psychology are all cross-cultural. Montreal Jews in the fifties may well be a number of other ethnic groups in a number of other places. Breavman's sexuality and his obsessions are nakedly, brazenly put into words by Cohen. It is one of the most honest novels around about what goes through the minds of young men. All of the silliness and stupidity of these thoughts, the rationalized vulgarity, the brazen animal sexuality tempered by social expectations.
While Breavman's characterization is reasonably captivating, especially in the character's balancing act between tendencies to destruction and preservation, and Cohen maintains a very high level of authorial craftsmanship throughout the novel, what I keep coming back to in my head is the prose, which is why I think that anyone who hasn't read this novel ought to read it. If written by a less confident and talented author, The Favourite Game may not have been all that good. The substance of the novel is only as good as its expression, especially in this case, where Cohen's stupid honesty and sincerity threatens frequently to fall into self-parody and unsuitable ridiculousness, but always stays on the right side of that line, even during Breavman's frequent praisings of the thighs of his lovers, or his fevered archaeological excavations of his lovers' bodies. Oh, and the book's pretty funny, too....more