Don't you kind of hate how we've entered the decadent phase of Goodreads wherein perhaps fifty percent (or more) of the reviews written by non-teenage...moreDon't you kind of hate how we've entered the decadent phase of Goodreads wherein perhaps fifty percent (or more) of the reviews written by non-teenagers and non-romancers are now naked and unabashed in their variously effective attempts at being arch, wry, meta, parodic, confessional, and/or snarky?
Don't you kind of pine (secretly, in the marrow of your gut's merry druthers) for the good ol' days of Goodreads (known then as GodFearingGoodlyReading.com) when all reviews were uniformly plainspoken, merely utilitarian, unpretentious, and -- above all else -- dull, dull, dull?
Don't you kind of hate when people say 'don't you think this way or feel that way' in an effort to goad you both psychologically and grammatically into agreeing with them?
In the words of ABBA: I do, I do, I do(, I do, I do).
Well, because the interwebs is a world in which the past stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the present (and with fetish porn), we can revisit the past in its inviolable presentness any time we wish. Or at least until this website finally tanks.
Consider (won't you?) Matt Nieberle's review of Macbeth in its entirety. I have bound it with a heavy rope and dragged it here for your perusal. (Please understand that many a sic are implied in the following reviews.)
its really complicated and stupid! why cant we be reading like Romeo and Juliet?!?! at least that book is good!
There you have it. Refreshingly, not a review written in one of the witch's voices or alluding to Hillary and Bill Clinton or discussing the reviewer's first period. Just a primal yell unleashed into the dark wilderness of the cosmos. Yes, Mr. Nieberle is (probably) a teenager, but I admire his ability to strongarm the temptation to be clever or ironic. (Don't you?) He speaks the native language of the idk generation with an economy and a clarity that renders his convictions all the more emphatic.
Here's MICHAEL's review of the same play. You may 'know' MICHAEL; he is the 'Problems Architect' here at Goodreads. (A problematic title itself in that it implies that he designs problems... which might be the case, for all I know.)
This book shouldn't be required reading... reading plays that you don't want to read is awful.
Reading a play kinda sucks to begin with, if it was meant to be read, then it would be a novel, not a play. On top of that the teach had us students read the play aloud (on person for each character for a couple pages). None of us had read the play before. None of us wanted to read it (I made the mistake of taking the 'easy' english class for 6 years). The teacher picked students that looked like they weren't paying attention. All of this compounded to make me pretty much hate reading classics for something like 10 years (granted macbeth alone wasn't the problem).
I also hate iambic pentameter.
Pure activism there. STOP the mandatory reading of plays. It's wrong, morally and academically. Plus it can really fuck up your GPA. There's no wasteful extravagance in this editorial... no fanfare, no fireworks, no linked photos of half-naked, oiled-up, big-bosomed starlets, no invented dialogues between the author and the review-writer. It's simple and memorable. Being required to read plays is wrong, and if you require anyone, under duress, to read a play then you have sinned and are going to hell, if you believe in hell. If not, you're going to the DMV.
I am also tired of all you smug spelling snobs. You damnable fascists with your new-fangled dictionaries and your fancy-schmancy spell check. Sometimes the passionate immediacy of a message overcomes its spelling limitations. Also, in this age when we are taught to respect each other's differences, it seems offensively egocentric and mean-spirited to expect others to kowtow to your petty linguistic rules. Artistic expression will free itself no matter how you try to shackle it.
In my personal opinion, the play Macbeth was the worste peice ever written by Shakespeare, and this is saying quite a bit considering i also read his Romeo and Juliet. Ontop of it's already unbelievable plot, unrealistic characters and absolutly discusting set of morals, Shakespeare openly portrays Lady Macbeth as the true vilian in the play. Considering she is mearly the voice in the back round and Macbeth himself is truely committing the hideous crimes, including murder and fraud, I do not see why it is so easy to assume that Macbeth would be willing to do good instead of evil if only his wife were more possitive. I believe that this play is uterally unrealistic.
But the following is by far the ne plus ultra of classic book reviewing. While succinct and without any distracting inclination to coyness or cuteness, Jo's review alludes to a bitterness so profound that it is inexpressible. One imagines a few Signet Classic Editions hacked to bits with pruning shears in Jo's vicinity.
I hate this play. So much so that I can't even give you any analogies or similes as to how much I despise it.
An incrementally snarkier type might have said something like... 'I hate this play like a simile I can't come up with.' Not Jo. She speaks a raw, undecorated truth unfit for figurative language.
And there's certainly nothing wrong with that. Once in a great while, when you get neck-deep in dandified pomo hijinks, it's a nice wallow in the hog pen you're itchin' for. Thank you, Jo. I love you and your futile grasping at similes that can't approach the bilious hatred in your heart. You are mine, and I am yours. Figuratively speaking, of course.
And now here's my review:
Macbeth by William Shakespeare is the greatest literary work in the English language, and anyone who disagrees is an asshole and a dumbhead.
The Passion According to G.H. is a difficult book to talk about—in part because it attempts to say the unsayable—so I'm going to talk about it in a ve...moreThe Passion According to G.H. is a difficult book to talk about—in part because it attempts to say the unsayable—so I'm going to talk about it in a very roundabout, personal way. If you're one of those Dragnet types who wants 'just the facts, ma'am,' you'd better scram right about now because I have absolutely no idea where this thing is going. I guess I'll just let this review be what it wants to be.
My first crisis was—I want to say at around the age of ten. But when I say it was the first crisis you should understand that it's the first crisis I remember. Who knows when or why these things begin? I'll leave that question to the psychologists, the biochemists, the shamans... Anyway, I was (let's say) ten, and I was in my pajamas standing in the living room. It was evening—dark enough for the bright lamplight to cast hard shadows around the room—but not so late that the dingy sunlight had fully retreated. In other words, it was the dying hour. That neither/nor time of day when I'm reminded that, yes, I will die. It's nature's daily memorandum to those who've become too complacent, too forgetful, and too immortal. My mother was on the sofa, and my sister was on the chair. But I was standing there locked into place while the world moved around me. I could sense the world (vividly) moving around me. Tic Tac Dough, featuring the ever-smiley host Wink Martindale, was on the Sony Trinitron.
In a span of time too short to register—a time without duration, just as in math a line (theoretically) has length but not width or depth and is therefore invisible—I experienced the crisis. The first crisis that I remember. But I shouldn't say I experienced it because it's difficult to experience something that doesn't extend itself in time; I should say that I remembered the feeling from it. I wasn't experiencing it directly, just a dulled memory of it. And what 'it' was was this: I remembered experiencing the world suddenly as objects without meaning or context. It's like this... Imagine that you're driving down the highway at 85 mph (because you're a leadfoot) and there's traffic all around you—but then suddenly you forget how a car works. The steering wheel, the pedals just become strange, unintelligible objects that you don't know what to do with. The car itself is only a shape surrounding you, without significance. Does it even have anything to do with your motion down the highway?
That's what it was like. Everything in the world, for a period of time without duration, became random shapes and figures without any organizing principle. Think about the world as nameless matter. How strange (and perhaps even frightening) these shapes become when you don't know their 'intentions.' And this is what I remembered when I was standing in the living room, with my mother and my sister on either side and Wink Martindale in front of me. I remembered not comprehending what I was and how I had a consciousness directed at these objects. It's true—I was safe now—the experience already belonged to the past, but even its residue was terrifying. I could remember losing myself.
I never told anyone about these experiences until many years later. As a ten year old, I didn't even know if it was strange or a symptom of merely being alive. Then one day I told my girlfriend S. about these 'episodes.' Fortunately, S. was as crazy as I was and she instantly knew what I meant. It was like a dark, horrible secret opened up between us. We could never tell 'the others'—they wouldn't understand. But we needed something to call it, a way to describe what it was. Being the pretentious kid I was, I dabbled in existentialism at the time, so I borrowed the conceptual underpinning and came up with the phrase phenomenological disorientation. It stuck. When I see her now, many years later, we both remember remembering it. The dark secret. The forgetfulness.
It was not long after the naming of the remembering of the experience that I realized that I would probably always be nuts. My main fear was that I would actually get stuck in the experience. What if one day I never came back out of it? What if I could never comprehend the world, the body, or the mind I inhabited ever again? That would be insanity. That must be what insanity is, right?
I've shared this (all-too-true) reminiscence with you because The Passion According to G.H. is the stream-of-conscious description of an existential crisis very much like it. A sculptress (known only as G.H., the initials monogrammed on her luggage) enters her maid's room to discover, much to her horror, a cockroach. She attempts to kill it by closing the door of an armoire on it, but this succeeds only in injuring it and prolonging its death. She watches over this dying cockroach, and this vigil provokes a collapse of her identity and her previous notion of what it meant to be human.
What I have told you just now constitutes probably 90% of the outward 'action' of the book. That's it. Most of the it is comprised of the frantic, iterative reflections of G.H. as she embarks upon a terrifying new understanding of the world. This new world can not be spoken. Our language fails it. It is an 'inexpressive' state of being without words—a vast, timeless existence that is constant like a humming without any inflection.
Needless to say, The Passion According to G.H. is a very difficult and often unpleasant book. Because it is composed of sentences that can not precisely name what is being discussed, the strategy is one of allusion. Lispector attempts to evoke the unsayable through unconventional and paradoxical uses of language. The idea (if we can even call it that) lies in the interstices between the words. The sentences are signposts directed at some unseeable object, lost on the horizon. As such, The Passion According to G.H. is a book that is not only thought but intuited and felt.
Do I even need to tell you that this is not a book for everyone? Okay: This is not a book for everyone. Although I think it's a masterpiece and I gave it five stars, I wouldn't be surprised by anyone giving it one star. Hatred for the book is as understandable to me as admiration. I have to confess that I picked it up about a week ago, I read thirty pages, and then I shelved it. 'Not for me. Definitely not for me.' But then—I found myself thinking about it. I wanted to know what Lispector meant. Although the narrative voice of the novel was obscure and seemingly erratic, it demanded my attention. Several times throughout, G.H. speaks to an imaginary person so that she can makes some sense of what she's saying. And we soon become aware that she doesn't understand it all either. It happened to her, and now she doesn't know what to do with it. So she gives it to us, the readers, to see if we can make sense of it.
I don't know much about Clarice Lispector, other than that she was born in the Ukraine, grew up in Brazil, and died at the age of 56. But the translator of The Passion According to G.H. Idra Novey offers this anecdote which, along with the novel itself, tells us more than any biography ever could:
A friend in Brazil told me of a young woman in Rio who'd read Clarice Lispector obsessively and was convinced—as I and legions of other Clarice devotees have been—that she and Clarice Lispector would have a life-changing connection if they met in person. She managed to get in touch with the writer, who kindly agreed to meet her. When the young woman arrived, Clarice sat and stared at her and said nothing until the woman finally fled the apartment.
Okay. So it's like this. My not-just-GR-friend-but-very-real-friend brian called and told me that J.D. Salinger had died maybe about a half hour ago (...moreOkay. So it's like this. My not-just-GR-friend-but-very-real-friend brian called and told me that J.D. Salinger had died maybe about a half hour ago (as I begin this 'review'). This sounds immensely absurd, pathetically sentimental, and embarrassing to admit, but I'm glad I heard it from him and not from some animatronic talking head with chin implants and immobile hair on the nightly news or from an obnoxiously matter-of-fact internet blurb, commenting like a machine on how Holden Caulfield has lately become less relevant to Generation Y or Z or AA or whatever stupid generation we're up to now.
At first when brian told me, I thought, 'Oh, well... He was old. He was (probably) batshit crazy anyway. It was his time to check out, I guess.' Really. What difference does it make? He's been dead to the world since the mid-1960s. Before I was even born. A strong case could be made that he truly died in spirit when he started stalking Elaine Joyce on the set of 1980s sitcom Mr. Merlin. And yet... I still clung to this (still technically living) legend as if he were some kind of talisman I could wear around my neck, a good luck charm to ward off phonies and all manner of soulless dreck who populate this despicable world, writing 'fuck' on grammar school walls (and metaphorical equivalents).
After returning for a few minutes to my soul-deadening job, which -- when you really get right down to it -- is just another way of killing time until I join Salinger in oblivion, I started getting all funny-feeling about it. At the risk of sounding like an adult contemporary power ballad written by Jim Steinman, with synthesized violins in the background, I began to feel as if my adolescence had finally come to an end. I guess it's about time. I'm thirty-eight years old, and yet I look at the people who are my age -- hell, who are even much younger than I am -- and who appear in all particulars to be adults, and I grow frightened/alarmed that they've graduated to the 'next level': they're mating and spawning and drawing up wills and completing their own tax returns and investing money and dealing (gracefully -- or with stoicism?) with the deaths of friends and relatives... and even some of them have died themselves of terrible diseases -- the kinds of diseases which are not content with merely claiming lives but which demand the optimal human suffering (the optimal dehumanization) before they cash in.
So of course. I love all of Salinger's writing, but his value in my life has far surpassed that of a 'mere' literary pastime. He has kept me company for many years when I felt left behind by the exigencies of time and the claims of 'maturity.' In my head, I still picture myself as a nineteen-year-old, and I'm shocked again and again when somehow every other moron on the planet seems to be under the ridiculous impression that I'm a thirty-eight-year-old man. With graying hair. And deepening crow's feet. What idiots!
I know all of this shit I'm saying is cliché, cliché, cliché. Lots and lots of people feel a special connection to Salinger's writing -- for just the reasons I described -- and lots and lots of people hate his writing because they find it grating and immature (Catcher in the Rye) or pretentious and ponderous (the Glass family stories). But I felt compelled to commemorate today in some way -- however trite and superfluous -- because I sense again and again (with the relatively recent deaths of some of my heroes, like Ingmar Bergman and Jacques Derrida, for instance) that I am entering a world that is no longer safeguarded by the great men and women of the elder generation; I am entering a world in which I am now the elder... with my own responsibilities and obligations. Yes, this still frightens me, but I'll always have Salinger's very particular and empathetic world to which to retreat when I have sacrificed too much of myself to a real world I'll never completely understand or feel at home in.(less)
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is the kind of novel you don't really know in its truest sense until you've reached the very end. It's something like loo...moreThe Book of Ebenezer Le Page is the kind of novel you don't really know in its truest sense until you've reached the very end. It's something like looking at vast panorama. If you consign your gaze to any particular detail, you inevitably miss the overwhelming sweep and grandeur of its totality. I don't mean to imply that there is some big, unexpected event at the end which changes how the reader understands the events which preceded it, but rather that it is the story of a life—and, yes, even life itself—and it resists all attempts at abbreviation. It requires fullness.
Ebenezer Le Page is an eighty-year-old man who has always lived on the island of Guernsey—a geological crumb located in the English Channel between Britain and France, about thirty square miles in all (smaller than the mid-sized city I live in) and, as of 2007, home to about 65,000 residents. A loner, a rascal, and a textbook example of a curmudgeon, Ebenezer gets the itch, in what he assumes are his final days, to write out the story of his life, the people he has known, and Guernsey itself. What results is the hodgepodge of humor, poignancy, and earthy philosophy known as The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. If I say it's a masterpiece—and I certainly do—you might very well say, 'Oh, fine. Sure. Another masterpiece. Guess I'll add it to my 'to-read' shelf. (Or not.)' But I doubt you'll ever think of it again because (let's face it) it sounds very... standard, very literary, very expected. A man in his twilight years recounting the story of life? Not exactly reinventing the wheel. But G.B. Edwards invests his novel with a strong, distinct narrator, a wealth of humanity, and a very personal understanding of Ebenezer's situation. (Edwards himself wrote the novel in his final years, and it was only published posthumously.) The ending of the novel is touching, undeniably transcendent, and painfully honest. It isn't that anything cataclysmic occurs, but rather that we have followed Ebenezer through the joys and sorrows of a life lived, in its entirety, without deficit or remainder, and we feel the weight of all his years ourselves. The novel is resoundingly alive. It's something like being able to live another life, to glean its insights, and to apply them to your own. This makes it sound 'inspirational,' in the degraded or trite sense of the word, but it's more than that. Every night when I read the book before going to sleep, I thought it reminded me of a bright light—and how, after you look at it and close your eyes, you still see the image of it. That's the way Ebenezer Le Page is. Once you meet him, you'll keep hearing his voice and remembering his life.(less)
Where has this book been all my life? I've been dreamily gazing out my window all these long hot summers, yearning for just the novel to fulfill my ev...moreWhere has this book been all my life? I've been dreamily gazing out my window all these long hot summers, yearning for just the novel to fulfill my every need—to take me in its sweet-lovin' arms and say without ever quite saying, 'I'm the one. And I've brought the hot oils and penicillin.' It seems a little cruel, or at least irresponsible, for A High Wind in Jamaica to have hidden in the shadows of literary obscurity for so long, forcing me to waste precious hours of my life reading dreck like V.S. Naipaul and Auster's Brooklyn Follies, but why bemoan the past when in fact we're the lucky ones? Some poor saps read all their lives without meeting their literary soulmates and then die with that nagging dissatisfaction pursuing them to the grave. Not me. I've found Salinger, Proust, Bernhard, Krasznahorkai, Richard Hughes, and the rest. (Okay—so I have a lot of soulmates.) This is my orgy of destiny, and the Do Not Disturb sign is on the doorknob.
Just now I said that A High Wind in Jamaica has been hiding 'in the shadows of literary obscurity.' That's not exactly true. It came in at number seventy-one (I believe) on the Modern Library's ridiculous best novels of 20th century list. But still—it doesn't exactly have widespread name recognition like Hemingway, Orwell, or Joyce. It should be just as well-known, of course, but this isn't a fair world. Remember that the Kardashians are celebrities. (That's my current back-to-reality incantation. It quickly counteracts any tendency to expect justice in this world.)
A High Wind in Jamaica is a wickedly unsentimental portrait of childhood and the innocence thereof. It is a needful antidote to the prevailing sense that childhood innocence is the equivalent of moral goodness—because it clearly is not. Young children are largely amoral and, as such, are capable of nearly anything. From the vantage of our adult morality, children can seem callous, cruel, and perhaps even evil. This is a misinterpretation, of course, because they as yet lack the signal posts to act in defiance of a proscribed morality. What they are (to a certain extent) is unmoderated expression. This is a little terrifying to us once we've been fully domesticated by society. And Richard Hughes understands this.
The story is simple enough. In the 1800s, several children are shipped by their parents from their Jamaican plantations back home to London to avoid the environmental and climatic perils of island life. On the way, their ship is hijacked by pirates and they are unintentionally taken prisoner. Thereafter, they become accomplices of the pirates in their continuing adventures. Hughes embellishes the story with an astonishing gift for imagery and turn of phrase and a knack for the blackest kind of humor. I'm well aware that the vague synopsis above is likely to turn away as many readers as it will woo. Just let me assure you that it isn't what you think, and it's probably like nothing you've ever read. It may not be your literary soulmate, but its uniqueness of tone, vision, and temperament deserves to be read.(less)
Of all the kinds of reviews to write, the ecstatically enthusiastic ones are the worst, I think. No matter how much you try to pepper your review with...moreOf all the kinds of reviews to write, the ecstatically enthusiastic ones are the worst, I think. No matter how much you try to pepper your review with big words and thoughtful commentary, you inevitably end up sounding like a gum-chomping tween girl squealing the paint off the walls about some boy band that looks like it should be directed to a hormone therapy ward.
Being openly enthusiastic about virtually anything can be tough—because it makes you vulnerable. It's like this: in a moment of weakness, you blurt out your unchecked passion for this or that, and along comes some dismissive asshole who deflates your earnest affection with a bit of cheap snark. (Mike Reynolds's review of The Road comes to mind here. But he's one of my favorite dismissive assholes.) Very much in the same way that I just now condescendingly patted the musical tastes of tween girls on the head and sent them on their way in the previous paragraph—when in fact some of them would clearly cut a bitch to get within fellating distance of a Jonas brother (or whatever twerps they happen to be listening to this week).
And W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz is an especially difficult book for me to get all OMFG!!! about because it's not the kind of book that everyone is going to like. I myself know a few people who would probably rather undergo dangerous elective surgery than plow through three hundred pages of slow-burning rumination about memory and, particularly, the Holocaust. Austerlitz is a specialized novel for a specialized audience—which certainly isn't to say a smarter or more refined audience. (Because that's rude to say, I guess, even though it may be true.)
I glanced through a couple of the negative reviews of this book on Goodreads, and they were especially idiotic. Their idiocy is not derived from their dislike of the book, however, but from the reasons they cite for disliking it. There was one woman in particular (God love her, as my high school Old Testament teacher Father Bly would say, dismissively) who lamented the lack of entertainment value in the book. And it was clear from contextual clues that 'entertainment' implied an escapist, reasonably upbeat, and eventful narrative. I hate this so much! Art (and yes—books are art!) isn't here to pacify you; it's not another tool at your disposal in the cultural toolbox to turn you into a drooling, thoughtless catatonic. You really weren't put here to spend all your off-time golfing and sticking your hand down your pants in front of the television. I thought this was fairly obviously.
There's this nitwit I work with, for instance, who is traumatized by any day that isn't sunny, warm, and encouraging, who refuses to see any movie that isn't expressly feel-good, and who (proudly) never reads books of any kind—because they would divert her from truly fun and mindless activities. It should go without saying that although I am a non-violent person I occasionally have fantasies about entering her office with a sledgehammer and destroying everything in sight. You should see the look on her dumb face when I show up at the door with that sledgehammer! Priceless! (This is what twenty-first century Middle America does to a man.)
Anyway. Did I mention it is just before 4 AM when I am writing this? I was restless in bed (not because of this review, mind you) and I thought I'd get the review of this book over with. Did you just see that? I said 'get it over with.' But why do I need to write a review at all? It's not like the entire online community is waiting breathlessly for me to weigh in with my opinion of this or any book.
Well, let me tell you why: Because if I read a book and I really, really, really love it (as I loved Austerlitz) I have to scream about it like a girl at a Justin Bieber concert. I become evangelical about these things. It's a compulsion.
The ironic thing is that I've discharged my burden without actually telling you much of anything about this book or why you should or should not read it. Which is kind of a shame. I guess I'm hoping my enthusiasm will speak for itself. But in an eleventh hour bid at relevance, let me say this: If you enjoy slow, meditative, labyrinthine remembrances about (I suppose) our alienation from our own past, then read this book. But if you only want to be 'entertained' from now until the moment that you die, then what are you even doing here? Killing time?(less)
László Krasznahorkai, I am nervous. Isn't that ridiculous? I'm actually nervous about writing a review for your novel The Melancholy of Resistance bec...moreLászló Krasznahorkai, I am nervous. Isn't that ridiculous? I'm actually nervous about writing a review for your novel The Melancholy of Resistance because I just finished scanning through the (few) other reviews on this site and saw that they were mostly perfunctory in their praise, somewhat soulless and academic, and insufficiently rapturous.
This is an amazing book! Don't they understand that? When you've heard the word of god (and here it is), you just don't dither around with propriety or the bone-dry language of theory. You jump up and down and run up to strangers and shake them and slobber and cry and sputter, OMG OMG OMG! And let me reassure you that I am very, very stingy with my enthusiasms and my ecstasies. I'm not Gene Shalit or the Sixty Second Movie Review or some idiot naïf who's floored by the slightest registerable stimulus.
This is what this book did to me. It woke me up in the middle of the night last night -- there, on my cheap lacquered IKEA nightstand. It veritably hummed with menace (and intimacy too) and demanded to be finished. It was midnight, or whenever-it-was... because, really, who consults clocks or bothers heeling to their increments when one is summoned -- yes, summoned to follow a course as needful and endemic as one's own pulse? Krasznahorkai enslaved me. There's no better way to put it. I was tempted to say that I was spellbound by the novel -- which is true, I guess, but doesn't go far enough or address the muscularity of the novel's powers. Spells (in the vernacular) are airy and fantastic, but slavery is more consciously willful. You can feel the master's force and bearing in every word. This isn't the vague twilight of spells, but the fullest night of abjection. Krasznahorkai, I am yours.
Immediately after finishing the final eighty-or-so pages, in the middle of the night, I had to start re-watching the film based on (or inspired by) the novel, Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, because how can you just nod off to sleep after you’ve been so dominated and terrorized by a novel? You can’t. There’s so much to think through, and the intensity does not easily yield to the evenness that sleep requires. Even though Krasznahorkai cowrote the screenplay of Werckmeister with Tarr -- and it is a good film -- it is (sad to say) lacking even as an homage to the book or its strange, all-consuming power. Tarr fails at capturing the menace or properly defining his characters. We are on such intimate terms with the characters in the novel that it comes as a rude shock that Valuska, the protagonist (played by a very Klaus Kinski-ish actor), is reduced to the status of mere cipher in the film. He seems to have no substance specifically belonging to himself. The other characters don’t fare much better as Tarr obsesses on their uncanniness rather than their humanity.
But back to the book, for a moment. I’ve failed to reveal a thing about it and only alluded to or attempted to suggest its strength. I must confess that I’ve been avoiding dealing with the brute matter of the novel because abstracted as such, it's not a very persuasive enticement. The novel is the story of the end of the world, in a way, by way of acknowledging that the world will persist, linger, drag on even after its raison d’être, its motivations, its meaning have collapsed. Valuska is an ‘idiot’ in the Dostoyevskian sense -- a young idealist still open-mouthed in his wonder at the world -- no, at the whole universe. As expected, his ‘purity’ is the subject of confusion, some admiration, but mostly ridicule and contempt. Even at the brink of civilization’s disintegration, he is invested with a passion and optimism that condemns him as the fool. His Hungarian hometown has been taken over by ‘strange’ happenings [or are they really so strange?] that the suspicious townspeople interpret as omens of terrible things to come. The culminating symbol is the arrival of a circus that scarcely deserves that name, since it seems to include only two exhibits: a giant, preserved whale in a truck trailer and a mysterious unseen Prince, deformed and rumored to reign over or impel the sinister happenings in the town… such as the arrival of hundreds of sullen men, followers of the circus, who wait, speechless, in the town square in small huddles. Waiting for what, exactly? The townspeople stay indoors and expect the worst -- some sort of provincial apocalypse, perhaps. But does the Prince bring about the mob’s menace and its chilling denouement or is he merely a convenient outside force on which to blame the worst impulses of mankind? (less)
There once was a grouchy alpha whale named Moby Dick who -- rather than being agreeably shorn of his blubber and having lumpy sperm scooped out of his...moreThere once was a grouchy alpha whale named Moby Dick who -- rather than being agreeably shorn of his blubber and having lumpy sperm scooped out of his cranium like cottage cheese -- chose life. Unlike so many shiftless, layabout sea mammals of his generation, Moby Dick did not go gentle into that good night. This whale, in short, was not a back-of-the-bus rider. He assailed a shallow, consumerist society, which objectified him only as lamp oil or corset ribbing, with the persuasive argument of his thrashing tail, gaping maw, and herculean bulk.
In his seminal (in more ways than one) animal rights saga, Herman Melville conjures an aquatic, rascally Norma Rae out of an elephantine albino whale. Reasonably enough, Moby Dick (hereafter M.D., despite possible confusions with the profession) is irritable when people are chasing him, stabbing him with harpoons, and trying to kill him. Thus, in an act which would be protected by law as self defense in most enlightened nations, M.D. bites off part of the leg of one of his many hunters, the humorless Captain Ahab.
Gall alert! Gall alert! Ahab has the nerve to hold a fucking grudge against the whale for this entirely ethical dismemberment. (He also holds a grudge for some incidental damage incurred to Lil' Ahab as a very weak corollary of his lost limb, but I'm not even getting into that. Judge Wapner would've never stomached that half-baked reasoning, so neither will I.) Now mind you, M.D. doesn't, like, come ashore in Nantucket, rent a lowrider horse-drawn carriage, and try to put a cap in the ass of that one-legged old bitch-ass captain who wanted to decapitate him. So, I mean, who's really the petty one in this equation?
The novel Moby-Dick eschews a first-person whale narrator in favor of Ishmael, a bit of a rube who shows up in New Bedford with big dreams of a whaling career. (Whaling was the Hollywood of that era.) He meets this reformed cannibal harpooner named Queequeg who hails from the South Seas, has lots of tattoos, and moonlights as a decapitated-human-head salesman. So basically he's rough trade. Ishmael and Queequeg become fast-friends and do all kinds of jovial homoerotic things together, like cuddle in bed and curiously espy each other undressing -- despite their pronounced cultural differences. I think Ishmael acts as a keen ethnographer when he highlights the variances: Queequeg, the savage, idol-worshipping, hell-condemned, unenlightened, "oogah-boogah" heathen, and Ishmael, the... white guy. Yet their love endures. It's as if all the sexual currents in Neil Simon's Odd Couple were suddenly foregrounded.
Ishmael and Queequeg find employment on the whaler Pequod, helmed by none other than the killjoy Captain Ahab himself -- he of prosthetic whalebone leg, abbreviated schlong, and legendary grudge-holding. So the Pequod embarks upon a three or four year whaling adventure around the globe, ostensibly in search of valuable whale oil, but in fact -- as we later learn -- to bring about Ahab's vengeance against the Marxist whale M.D., who refuses to be expropriated by the Man.
Interestingly enough, as the journey goes on, Ishmael's character seems to evaporate. In other words, he gradually shifts from a compartmentalized first-person narrator to an omniscient third-person narrator. He seems almost to have rescinded his identity (or he only rarely invokes it) in the latter part of the novel, as if -- while we have been distracted by gloppy whale sperm and passing ships -- he morphed into the Star Child. This transformation is, of course, intentional and creates a sense of broadening perspective throughout the novel -- of transcending the menial and specific to embrace a grand, universal tragedy.
Here's the bottom line. Moby-Dick is an American classic that sounds as though it would be absolutely torturous to read. A six-hundred-page nineteenth-century novel about the pursuit of a whale? You've got to be kidding. Did I mention that there are chapters after chapters that merely detail the processes and (often gory) procedures of whaling? I know. Try to control yourself before you run out to the bookstore or library, right? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
This novel is magnificent. It proves what I have held true ever since I started writing myself -- that any subject at all, from whittling to colonoscopies to Riverdance to bagpipe playing, can be enthralling in the hands of a competent writer -- a writer like Melville, who simultaneously locates the universal in this seemingly very particular narrative and makes even the occasionally perplexing rituals of whaling seem fascinating.
Also, it's a captivating historical document chronicling M.D.'s groundbreaking role in the nascent Whale Power movement. Eat tailfin, honkies! (less)
Winesburg, Ohio, is certainly the geographical ancestor of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Washington, and Lumberton, North Carolina (Blue Velvet) -- not so...moreWinesburg, Ohio, is certainly the geographical ancestor of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Washington, and Lumberton, North Carolina (Blue Velvet) -- not so much for its omens of severed ears and one-armed men, but for its wealth of turbulent emotion (e.g., rage, despair, lust, contempt... all the good ones, really) concealed behind a picturesque scrim of small town American life. Yeah, the shopworn theme of middle class American repression has been done to death -- Sam Mendes’s American Beauty may have seemed its trite little death knell -- but the masters always manage to make it fresh and insightful. And let’s not forget, naysayers, that Sherwood Anderson published this, his masterpiece, in 1919. That’s right. Ninety years ago, and I guarantee that it’s a helluva lot more modern, in language and sensibility, than some of the stuff being written today. If it weren’t for the talk of carriages and Butch Wheeler lighting the street lamps, you might not even guess at its age at all. It’s had literary Botox or something.
One of my new favorite books of all time, Winesburg, Ohio is also the longest shortest book I have ever read in my life... which isn’t to say that it’s tedious or verbose or difficult, but that each short story in this compilation of character sketches about Winesburg residents contains so incredibly much, that the emotional weight of three or four of them in one sitting is enough or is as much as human empathy will tolerate. Make no mistake... The people of Winesburg are, for the most part, pretty fucking miserable. I ain’t kidding you: the lion’s share of them are privately contending with some deep sense of loss or regret or dissatisfaction which they are -- or merely feel -- powerless to overcome.
I mean, just take a good look at a few of ‘em: Wing Bindlebaum lugs around the (unfounded) rumors of his pedophilia, keeping him from expressing himself freely; Elizabeth Willard suffers from marrying her cold, neglectful husband Tom because 'he was at hand and wanted to marry at the time when the determination to marry came to her' (ah, romance!); Elmer Crowley is so obsessed with the fear of being perceived as strange (or 'queer' in the original sense of the term), that he makes of himself the most inexplicable town oddity; and Alice Hindman, who I think is the saddest one of all (no small feat), saves herself for a man who has left town and forgotten her and lies in bed at night 'turning her face to the wall [and:] trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.'
Wow is right. There are some pretty baroque -- not to say bleak -- interior lives inhabiting these plain and simple-seeming folk. Because the narrative component in these stories is only a means to illustrate -- no, not illustrate -- transmit these inner lives to the reader, I think it’s fairer to call them vignettes. Regardless of seasons, characters, and particulars, each one transpires in a gauzy-golden-late-autumnal-Bergmanesque-twilit-dream-state. We see too opaquely into the psychological interiority for this to be hard-and-fast realism. We experience these vignettes primarily as auras, moods, and eulogies.
Sherwood Anderson’s use of language in Winesburg, Ohio is definitely worth mentioning because it feels profoundly unique. Yeah, sure, his sparse, colloquial prose is a kindred spirit of sorts with Gertrude Stein’s and Ernest Hemingway’s, but it’s certainly not neat or easy. What I mean is that, just because the bulk of the words are elementary, monosyllabic, it doesn’t follow that the reader glides effortlessly over the prose. Anderson often tosses in non-sequiturs, layered abstractions, mysterious phrases, and clunky rhythms to keep his readers fully engaged. Nestled within the simple, matter-of-fact narration in 'Death,' for instance, we find these two sentences:
In the big empty office the man and the woman sat looking at each other and they were a good deal alike. Their bodies were different as were also the color of their eyes, the length of their noses and the circumstances of their existence, but something inside them meant the same thing, wanted the same release, would have left the same impression on the memory of an onlooker.
Incredible. 'Something inside them meant the same thing.' That little verb, dispatched in an unfamiliar and enigmatic way, makes the sentence. Rather than feeling or thinking the same way, the two shared a significance. What does that mean exactly? You can almost grasp it or catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of your eye, but it’s one of those things you need to feel to really understand.
I also can’t help but love the serial parity of eyes, noses, and existences in the second sentence. There’s a beautiful awkwardness in that phrase that quietly thrills me. (Yes, I’ll own my literary geekiness. It thrills me... and, now, no longer quietly!)
Winesburg, Ohio is only the nineteenth book I’ve added to my literary Valhalla, otherwise known as my 'pants-crapping-awesome' bookshelf. It is a rare and beautiful thing, and I am still wondering if you realize how much I loved it... If not, call me at home and I’ll tell you all about it. (less)
Where reading is concerned, I'm more LOTI than LOL. That's right. I'm admittedly frugal with my outwardly expressed laughter—unlike the normative soci...moreWhere reading is concerned, I'm more LOTI than LOL. That's right. I'm admittedly frugal with my outwardly expressed laughter—unlike the normative social behavior these days wherein giggling becomes a nervous tic to punctuate every banal and unfunny comment. Maybe we want life to be funny so we laugh at it whether it is or not. We inflict an impoverished semblance of humor upon the world. And if we don't happen to mirror the laughter of our neighbors when they read one of those dumb jokey chain emails or recount a gag they found positively uproarious in Wild Hogs, then we're convicted of sourpussery rather than credited with possessing a refined or discriminating sense of humor. TomAYto, tomAHto, I guess. What I'm claiming, somewhat facetiously, is that mindless and incessant giggling is the preoccupation (most commonly) of morons and manchildren who devalue the currency of laughter with their spendthrift ways. When everything is funny, then nothing is. Or maybe more accurately, when everything is funny, you're probably a total nutjob and should be stashed away in a cozy booby hatch somewhere. But you know what? The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes by the clever and mischievous Spanish author Anonymous is actually really funny! So sayeth I. Not funny in an unfunny Geico commercial, Modern Family, or Jimmy Fallon kind of way, but funny in an honest-to-goshness 'Oh, my fucking god, did I just chortle?' kind of way. I literally laughed aloud several times—not that I would ever use that pernicious LOL as a matter of course because of how every dingbat on the planet is LOLing at everything nowadays: cirrhosis of the liver (LOL!), thermonuclear war (lmao!!), talking baby videos (rotflmao!!!)... This slim book (only 118 pages in the NYRB edition) was written in 1553. Did you digest that? 1553! Before William Shakespeare was even born! Now that's fuckin' old school. It's the story of a put-upon boy, mothered by a whore, who is sent off into the world to find a master to work for and earn his keep from. The first master is an extremely mean-spirited blind man. But don't worry—Lazaro finds ways (equally cruel and ingenious) of getting back at the old bastard. (And since everyone around Goodreads knows that I apparently hate blind people's guts, this was a particularly amusing segment for me. At the end, we're not quite sure whether Lazaro's trickery might not have actually inflicted a mortal injury on the sighltess creep. In the modern era, Lazaro could just refrain from alt-tagging his pictures. I hear it really honks those blindies off.) Anyway, Lazaro goes through a series of different masters, almost all of them either cruel or stupid (or both). The funniest segment involves a miserly priest who only feeds Lazaro onions, keeping the bread and the good food locked away in chest (for himself). This portrait of religious hypocrisy will give you an idea why this novella had to be published by 'Anonymous.' (And by the way, in case you were wondering, LOTI is laughing on the inside.)(less)
Well, I can see why We by Yevgeny Zamyatin was 'problematic' for the Soviet regime. It unequivocally debunks the utopian collective ideal. Communism (...moreWell, I can see why We by Yevgeny Zamyatin was 'problematic' for the Soviet regime. It unequivocally debunks the utopian collective ideal. Communism (in practice, if not in theory) demands each of its fellow-travelers to exist on a purely atomic level. Good, responsible communists are mere corpuscles in a bland, unfulfilling social body. Sure, economic equality seems like a nice ideal, right? A cute ideal, even? But aside from being virtually impracticable (because humans will always be human), however, it becomes a nightmare when individuals are forced to relinquish their selfhood at the altar of the purely collective.
The religiosity of communism has always embarrassed me. All these puffed-up intellectuals imagining they've thrown off the weight of myth and simplistic, primitive 'gods' when they've only invented a new one—all the more absurd for its rationalist pretensions. Call me a decadent bourgeois if you wish, but I am unwilling to give up my individualism—yes, including my selfishness!—for the sake of some theoretical, neutered society—an always-deferred happiness that resembles heaven to an almost satirical extent.
Zamyatin pulls no punches in dealing with these blind spots of Soviet totalitarianism. (And please don't infer that my condemnation of the Soviet model implies a wildly enthusiastic endorsement of the American model. America needs its own satires.) The narrative centers on a social cog named D-503 in some distant future who struggles to maintain his naive faith in the new hypercollective world order in the face of a sudden, unexpected obstacle: love. Sure, it sounds really quaint, but We is a whirlwind of intellectual and emotional chaos, brought to life in strangely mathematical imagery and feverish mystery.
Reading this fractured, oddly-phrased story, I can only imagine that it was extremely difficult to translate, so I'll point out that I read the fairly recent Natasha Randall translation put out by the Modern Library. I can't vouch for other translations, but this one is modern, gripping, and evocative. The final fifty pages, coupled with the coffee I was drinking, actually gave me anxiety. And now that I close the book, I'm left with this vague sort of dread-slash-melancholy. I consider that a good thing. The truly great books are the ones you feel even when you aren't reading them.(less)