The first time I read this book it was for a class called the Novel that I took when I was a Junior in high school. It blew my mind, I had never readThe first time I read this book it was for a class called the Novel that I took when I was a Junior in high school. It blew my mind, I had never read a novel that was so consistently funny and Heller's commentary on the incompetence of authority fit into my burgeoning political awakening and my experience with authority, meaning public school administrators, up to that point. I flew through the first couple hundred pages. I remember getting a little tired of the tone toward the end, but it immediately became one of my favorite novels of all time. There were others in the class, people whose opinions I respected, people who signed up for a class called the Novel, who hated it and couldn't get past 100 pages. This befuddled me, I could not see how people could dislike the book.
My overall opinion hasn't changed much but some details did. I can now understand why some people hate the book. The first 200 pages of the book is much more a series of interconnected short stories than the latter 250 pages. Some of these kind of tested my limits. Maybe it was my state of mind, but I especially hated the Major Major chapter and the first chapter dealing with the chaplain's assistant. The whole Washington Irving / Irving Washington subplot didn't do a ton for me. Also some of the dialogue sections started to resemble another too close for my liking. However, there was still parts that I loved. I don't have the book in front of me right now, but off the top of my head, the Clevinger interrogation was a particular highlight. After the first 200 pages, things start coming together. Heller's main themes start to coalesce, and you start actually feeling for the minor characters. The sense of the absurd is never lost, but Heller crafts some set pieces that are heartbreaking and beautiful. The narrative jumps around in time at the beginning, and there are references to things that are not explained. However, this structure pays off.
When I think back to my first read, the main things I remembered was the tone and the themes of the novel. This reading gave me a new appreciation for the structure of the story. Yossarian remains is a cynic at the beginning of the novel, but there is character development. And the ending, I completely forgot about the ending which might be one of my favorite endings in literature.
Catch-22 has earned its place in the American cannon, and deserves a read just for its profound influence, not only on American lit, but on American humor. Yeah, sometimes it's monotonous or exacerbating, but it rewards the reader. Heller puts the reader into his character's mind where you begin to think like Yossarian thinks. Although the novels are very different, the reading experience reminded me of Crime and Punishment.
After the reread, Catch-22 remains in my pantheon. This book blew my mind when I was 17, and I realized how much it influenced me. No matter how many details you forget, this novel sticks in your psyche. Yossarain Lives!...more
From my fall 2001 to roughly sometime late last summer, this was the best book ever. Then a specific reading experience starting convincing that everyFrom my fall 2001 to roughly sometime late last summer, this was the best book ever. Then a specific reading experience starting convincing that everything I knew about reading fiction was wrong.* Aside from the sincerity of the before mentioned belief, the way people interpret things changes with where the persons life is at that particular moment.** I mean, my 25 year old self would undoubtedly have a different reaction than my 16 year old self. And here's the thing, even when I went on my half-decade semi-hiatus from reading fiction, All the Kings Men was one of the ones that I told myself I needed to get around to rereading. I kept it wherever I happened to be living, planning on getting to it sooner or later. So I figured why not give it another go.
After doing so, I gotta say,All the Kings Men is fucking awesome. The plot's engaging, the characters are (for the most part) life-like, and the writing is exceptionally beautiful.*** What surprised me was how little I really remembered. I remembered the broad plot outlines, and a few of the themes, but the reread was remarkably fresh.
I'm trying to remember what initially sucked me into the book as a high-schooler. I read it around the time of my political awakening, so I think it was the plot surrounding Willy Stark. Stark is a very interesting character, one who is unlike the stereotypes found in political novels. It would have been easy for Warren to write of the stereotypical small town idealistic dreamer who slowly gets corrupted by power, but this isn't an accurate description of Stark. Warren's Stark was either never corrupt or never poor. He's a pragmatist who is aware, and comfortable with, the underbelly of governing. The forward of my edition points out the novel's influnece on Primary Colors, which was semi-based on the 1992 Clinton campaign for the Democratic nomination. Upon reflection, one could not be blamed by finding as many similarites between the two Willy's, Stark and Clinton, as between Stark and Warren's actual inspiration, Huey Long. Clinton might be the most effective modern politician since Roosevelt, for the same reasons that made Stark a success.
Anyways, I loved the book in high school for the tragedy of Willie Stark. This was the part that I was most familiar with upon revisiting the novel. I remember being annoyed with the a lot of the sections that left Stark completely, What I was missing is the heart of the novel, the story of the narrator, Jack Burden. This is where the novel is elevated over political pulp, like Primary Colors. This is why the novel still is one of my favorite of all time.
In truth, All the Kings Men is hardly a political novel at all. If the novel was reduced to the bare structure of the tragedy of Willie Stark it would be about half as long. What the novel is, is an exploration of sin, guilt, and the burden of the past. There are chapters of brilliance, page after page of exquisite prose, breathtaking examinations of the human condition. I can't adequately describe how good some parts of this novel are. Over the past couple of days, I've picked the book up and reread highlighted passages, and my heart grows ten sizes.
I find my initial plot-based admiration somewhat misplaced. Toward the end of the novel some elements turn somewhat soap-opera-ish. The climax of the novel is weakened by a gaping plot hole.**** But the novel isn't a political thriller, its a meditation on sin and guilt, its a parable about the past's effect on the present, its a a contemplation of ends vs. means, and it's reaffirmed its place as one of my favorite novels of all time.
* Bleh. I hate the idea of single transformative, quasi-religious, reading experiences. I guess I believe in them, but I'm kinda embarrassed by them. Call me an ashamed disciple of the power of a single work of literature. Strangely, I don't feel the same way about music, even though a) I can't pinpoint a single instant of a song changing the way I thought about music, and b) Natalie Portman almost sorta ruined the concept in Garden State.
** No shit Sherlock.
*** Robert Penn Warren was the first American Poet-Laurette. I mention this because my sister used the book for AP English the year after I did. She was struggling with some of the terms introduced, so she would bracket passages and scrawl "lyrical" or "syntax" in the margins. She could have really bracketed the entire book.
**** MAJOR SPOILER ahead. If you don't want to be spoiled do not read the next paragraph. I would say that this would not ruin the reading experience, because this novel is better than it's basic plot, but if you care consider yourself warned. What follows is a MAJOR SPOILER.
I call bullshit on Adam Stanton's motivations for shooting Stark. I realize the guy's worldview had been recently rocked, and he would have been upset about his sister's affair. And I know these were different times. But look, I have a little sister too, but Stark's discretions called for, at most, a punch in the face. It would be different if Adam was maladjusted, or violent. But throughout the novel he's shone to be an admirable, benevolent character.And even if I can accept that the truth about Anne and Stark sent Adam off the deep end, I can't buy that the people who leaked the information to him knew that it would make him kill Stark. Yet this is how it is portrayed in the novel. The conspirators accept that this information would have the same effect on Adam as Frankie Goes to Hollywood has on Zoolander. Like I said, the book is more than its plot, and Adam's actions and motivations were necessary for Warren's ending, which is satisfying, but this bugged the shit out of me.
For close to ten years I've been telling people that this is one of my favorite books. I read it in high school, before my hiatus from seriously readiFor close to ten years I've been telling people that this is one of my favorite books. I read it in high school, before my hiatus from seriously reading fiction that lasted from 2003 until 2009. Once I got the literary bug again, I realized that I didn't trust my adolescent evaluations, and I needed to reread much of what I had read up to that point to give an accurate subjective opinion of them. Since then, I've reread a handful of books I read for the first time as a somewhat ridiculous high school student. Now that I'm a somewhat ridiculous semi-responsible adult, there haven't been many radical shifts in opinion, but I've found that I am less impressed by certain aspects that floored me a decade ago, while finding new things that went unnoticed or under-appreciated during my first read.
If you had asked me at the end of my hiatus which book was safest in my personal pantheon I would have probably said this book.* This premonition was enhanced earlier this year when I read the remarkable Love in the Time of Cholera. So it kind of breaks my heart to be so underwhelmed by One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Let me defend my 16 year old self. Time has done no great favors to this book. That's not to say that it's dated, rather, it's one of those instances where something that was once revolutionary becomes a staid prototype. In my review of Lord of the Flies** I talked about how sometimes a work can get so firmly rooted in our cultural conscience after several years it loses a large amount of it's initial worth to those encountering it for the first time. The present case is different than Lord of the Flies, which was "spoiled" because of familiarity with the scenario and certain plot elements. Reading Lord of the Flies now is almost like watching reruns of Cheers. I loved the show when I was a kid, I know enough to say that the show was probably the best sitcom of the '80s, and there are still great parts. But still, when I see one of the episodes from the early seasons I haven't seen, it seems unbelievably dated. On the other hand, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the first of a new breed. Perhaps the reason I loved this book so much when I was 16 was that I had never read anything like it before. The way Márquez uses poetic flights of fantasy to expose the underlying vein of stark reality was, and is, remarkable. It's just that now, after reading Love in the Time of Cholera, Midnight's Children, and other stuff what was once lustrous has become somewhat dull. It doesn't help that this book is built on a sense of repetition in events and characters. Now that the "magical" half of the equation has grown somewhat familiar, the reader may start to suspect that Márquez was just shoving this shit into his story to obscure the fact that he is repeating the same thing that he did 70 pages ago.
I'd still say that this book is insanely readable. Even when I found myself rolling my eyes I was simultaneously swept up in the beat of Márquez's prose. One Hundred Years of Solitude is like the debut album that heralds the arrival of an exciting new voice. Without England's Newest Hitmakers we may have never gotten Exile on Main Street. The former album isn't bad by any means. The playing is solid, the covers are well-chosen, and the earnestness almost jumps into your lap. I'll listen to it every once in a while and walk away pleased. But on most days, I'll retain appreciation for "Can I Get a Witness" or "Walking the Dog" while listening to "Tumbling Dice" or "Loving Cup."
*I would have probably said Catch-22, and then this book, but that piece of dicta was cramping the above sentence.
**Which I'm going to hold off on linking to because I'm pretty sure it's terrible. ...more