Unfortunately, I just lost 3 paragraphs of a well thought-out review, so I'm going to keep this short.
My main qualm with the book was that Mu3.5 stars
Unfortunately, I just lost 3 paragraphs of a well thought-out review, so I'm going to keep this short.
My main qualm with the book was that Musil was unable to balance the poetic/philosophical meanderings against the main action, that it is often too overloaded with the former. But this is a first novel, where such mistakes are to be expected, and Musil himelf voiced some ambivalence many years later about the quality.
Nonetheless, I liked it. Many readers will find the meanderings dull, but I thought they were quite interesting. Musil has a precision in his language and also psychological insight into the confused adolescent mind of Torless.
The idea that this novel prophecies WWI and the rise of facism seems misguided. At its most basic, this is a story about power dynamics in a private boys military school, similar to the one Musil attended as a boy. Like most adolescents, the boys are building their identities and testing out their roles, thus probably mirroring the bourgeois society in Austria at the time. Which is to say, highly moralistic and often torn between an Enlightenment view of the world and something more mystical or sentimental.
You have Bieneberg, a manipulative bully with an unsophisticated "strong ruling he weak" kind of morality. And then you have Rieting, who spouts half-baked quasi-mystical "wisdom," no doubt parroted from his father, who likes to study texts from India in his spare time (Mueller, one presumes). Basini plays the helpless victim, but this too is a manipulation, a means of survival. The poor boy, effeminate and probably gay, believes that if he simply caves into demands he will somehow survive his schooling.
Torless is somewhere outside of this, both in thought and action, and this is where his confusions stem. When the torture of Basini begins, he is only an observer, refusing to act. Eventually, he discovers a kind of beauty in Basini and acts in an unexpected way, but then he pushes the boy away. What is made clear is that Torless discovers something dark and unknowable within himself through these events, something it is implied that his society (the teachers) are helpless to understand or describe. Neither reason, nor mysticism, nor moralism are adequate, and ultimately he must move on to another environment. The only certainty is that the experiences have changed him....more
Well, now comes the day when I get to a big jerk and label a book everyone likes "overrated." When I say that it is overrated, I do not mean that it iWell, now comes the day when I get to a big jerk and label a book everyone likes "overrated." When I say that it is overrated, I do not mean that it is a bad book, or that it is not effective in some way. In fact, judged purely on intent, it is a highly effective book, and it is in places beautifully written. But an effective book is not necessarily a good book, and I question how good this one really is.
There are a number of reasons I think this book resonated so deeply in the popular imagination and garnered a Pulitzer. The most obvious reason is inherent in the post-apocalyptic premise and McCarthy's ability to tap into deep, innate fears we all have. He imagines a world destroyed, stripped of all content and anything that we would recognize as warm and human, save for the relationship between the nameless father and son as they just try to survive on their journey. The lack of names and specific personal details or anything tied to the human world we now know universalizes the experience. The father and the son, and the few other characters they meet, become ciphers, and the story is effective because the reader is able to project whatever they like upon it. The ambiguity of the events that lead to this contextless world furthers the effect.
While McCarthy is clearly working within post-apocalyptic subgenre of science fiction, I would agree with Chabon that he's more substantially hearkening to a particular subgenre of horror--the zombie post-apocalypse. There are no zombies here, of course, the closest we get are the roaming gangs of human cannibals, but these figures are treated in similar enough fashion as objects of fear and unambiguous bad guys. The source of the fear is always that such figures are (or once were) human. The father continually insists that he and his son are the good guys, perhaps partially to reinforce and maintain some kind of moral center in his son or perhaps to maintain some hold on what it is to be human (never mind that being human has historically included doing some awful things). Because the story is so tightly focused on the two characters, the morality of the novel is ultimately rather basic, in the end affirming the dichotomy that the father tries so hard to instill in his son.
While the effort to maintain this moral center between the two characters aids in our caring about them and feeling something is at stake, the simplicity of it is problematic when one attempts to actually place it in grander context of the premise. The scenario presented in the novel is most similar to a nuclear winter or possibly a large meteor hitting the earth. If most of the vegetation and animals died off, eventually humans would go through their stores and by necessity resort to cannibalism, it is more likely that the cannibals would ensure our survival. As horrific as it is to imagine, it might be the cannibals that keep humanity going. And it is even possible these cannibals maintain something like a culture, albeit one very different from our own modern Western variety. They might have a society and a religion. It is also not unlikely that the "good guys" may not be so self-isolating as in this novel, that they manage to band together and organize in less meager a fashion as the man and boy, and the family at the end, manage. Again, this would take the book away from its very limited center and veers the story more into the realm of science fiction, but it does reveal a certain lack of imagination and deeper moral questioning in the story. Perhaps the problem is that people want the basic answers to serve as anathema to a messy world.
Another aspect of the novel both lauded and criticized is the style, which is by turns poetically evocative and awkward, for the most part uneven. He goes back and forth between a plodding minimalism and a imagistic lyricism most evocative of Melville and, as James Wood suggests in his review, Lawrence and Hardy. Wood also defines McCarthy's tendency toward archaisms, which I saw in the more lyrical passages, as a separate register. I am not sure I can agree that the use of minimalism in the novel works, though it is in fits and starts tolerable. The repeated tendency to link several clauses with "and" coupled with the use of descriptive clauses as fragment make for an often repetitive, plodding read that is anything but elegant--though the simplicity and focus on mundane details underscores the nature of time bereft of any concern but basic survival. The switching between this style and the more lyrical passages lends to the uneven feel. When these passages work, they draw us out of the mundane realm into some echo of the distant past now in a state of disrepair. The scenes that stands out most in this regard was the old plantation house they stumble into during the second half. The use of archaic words and diction, however, works less well, and McCarthy's religious references feel heavy-handed, as if he is reaching for something more than what is there. It is not that McCarthy is not capable of the poeticism many readers and critics identify in the novel, it is that he can never quite pull it together or fully justify the clumsiness of his attempt.
The lack of quotation marks did not pose as much a challenge for me as it did for some, but then I've read and enjoyed Faulkner and Joyce. McCarthy is clear enough in parsing the dialogue line-by-line; his main fault is not always providing enough tags to parse who is speaking when. If the tone and language of the dialogue were not so similar, this may have been less an issue. What bothers me more is his insistence on not using apostrophes for some of the contractions. Considering that his minimalism with commas sometimes leads to an ambiguous reading, it seems strange that he'd think "theyd" looked more wrong than "cant." Yes, it is a minor quibble in a novel that has much bigger issues, but it is an annoying affectation from a writer who in interviews seems so annoyed by affectation. Then again, that is the state of American letters.
And that is, I suppose, how I ultimately feel about the novel and why I think B.R. Myers might very well have had a point when lambasting McCarthy's more recent work some 10 years ago. As previously noted, of course, it is more than the prose that proves to be problematic. When trying to define exactly what felt wrong about the story, I struggled to find any review (outside GoodReads) that contradicted popular opinion. You have no idea how difficult this was. Finally, after some effort, I found myself agreeing with this review by Elizabeth Tallent that focuses on the issues with the morality of the novel, as well as its treatment of women. She also clarifies that it's more than just the morality that's problematic, but the way McCarthy uses something as big and broad-reaching as an apocalypse as a rumination on a very personal relationship. Other reviewers rightly draw attention to these issues, which are primarily what annoyed/concerned me. The personal slant of the content and morality is all well and good, but we're talking all (or most) of humanity here. Just something to consider.
Mind you, when I was first given glowing reviews of the novel by some online friends about 5 years ago, I smelled the hype and was a bit concerned--as I often am when hype is involved. It's not that I can't understand why people give this 4-5 stars. I certainly can. It is, as I said, an effective novel within certain limitations. But I also wonder if its effectiveness is not part of some current zeitgeist or if, perhaps, it is just extremely good at tapping into our deep moral sentiments. It is (absurdly, for it is a dark novel) rather sentimental, the end especially. Maybe if I had been primed properly I would have fallen in love. I did try to be open, but a book should still give you reasons to fall in love. I could find few, and so there you are....more
I'm a bit reticent to give this one a full 5, partly because it's been years since I read the first two volumes of the "Secret Books of Paradys" and II'm a bit reticent to give this one a full 5, partly because it's been years since I read the first two volumes of the "Secret Books of Paradys" and I'm not sure how well it compares. However, compared to "The Book of the Dead" it's far stronger, amounting essentially to a novel with three separate stories that intersect in a very ingenuous way that only suffers somewhat in its ultimate ambiguity. Each story takes place in a parallel version of Paradys (which itself is an alternate version of Paris) and is marked by the struggle of the protagonists against sanity/insanity. I'll not go into too much more detail, as the synopsis above does a well enough job. The unanswered questions and remaining mystery at the end will no doubt frustrate many readers, but it works within context of the story as a whole, while maintaining the atmosphere that is so effectively portrayed throughout the series. As with the previous books, Lee's concern with matters of style color much of the narrative. Some will find her too flowery, while others like myself will be impressed by the economy of her description and intense lyricism. Beautiful stuff, as ever....more
Taken as a whole, this series is a fascinating excursion into the fantastic city of Paradys, a sort of darkened magical mirror version of Paris that sTaken as a whole, this series is a fascinating excursion into the fantastic city of Paradys, a sort of darkened magical mirror version of Paris that spans several centuries. This particular volume, "The Book of the Dead" struck me as one of the weaker books in the series, which is not to say that it isn't effective in terms of writing and atmosphere, only that it was less cohesive in terms of tying the stories together. As the title might suggest, each story ends with a death, and this running motif is framed by a walk through the cemetery. Rather clever, but also a bit incidental and tacked-on. I am tempted to think of Bradbury's "The Illustrated Man," which perhaps made best use of a framing device in a short story collection, itself being its own story. This one is not, and that might be why I found it rather paltry. Taken individually, the stories are for the most part very effective, dripping with atmosphere and Lee's usual beautiful prose. As is typical, her characters are usually on the margins of society and driven for various reasons to go beyond the confines of normal society--in short to transgress. Echoes of Poe and Baudelaire abound throughout the series, but this particular volume seems to rest most firmly in the horror and ghost story tradition. She remains at an even keel throughout, to the extend that it's hard to state which story stood out most....more
I'm a bit torn about this book, since there are some elements I like, others I dislike.
The story is practically designed to appeal to my sensibilitiesI'm a bit torn about this book, since there are some elements I like, others I dislike.
The story is practically designed to appeal to my sensibilities, what with a young naif swept away by the brooding aristocrat with A Dark Secret. I love how Rebecca's presence looms throughout as a source of jealousy, infatuation, and obsession. Brilliant how a dead character whom the narrator has never met could actually be the richest character in the story. Apart from this, du Maurier writes some wonderfully atmospheric description, and the passages describing Manderlay are particularly potent and memorable, reflecting further on the theme of memory.
Unfortunately, it wasn't long before I got sick of the narrator's timidity and insecurity, which overpower the narrative and result in too many passages imagining what others are saying behind her back or how awesome Rebecca must have been, etc. For the sake of characterization, a bit of this would have been fine, but after a few chapters, it was just annoying and repetitive. Thankfully, she held off for a few chapters after the big secret is revealed. The pacing up until that point is as slow as molasses, though the payoff is fulfilling enough I don't mind *too* much. The ending is indeed abrupt, but I think it works within the reminiscent framing.
Overall, not as impressed as I hoped I would be, but the richness of du Maurier's description, the potency of Rebecca as a character, and the themes of memory, obsession, and power (or lack of power) were interesting enough that I found the book memorable and worth recommending to fans of Gothic lit....more
Whilst reading this, I considered for the first time the difficulty Artaud's writing must pose for the translator. Not because I read/speak French andWhilst reading this, I considered for the first time the difficulty Artaud's writing must pose for the translator. Not because I read/speak French and am thus certain of the difficulty, but because there is a particular thorniness in the language in nearly every translation I had read, a consistent sort of thorniness that leads me to believe it's a matter of the source and not poor translation. If you go into this book unfamiliar with Artaud's work, you might find some bits difficult. I'm reminded of when I first read "Van Gogh: The Man Suicided By Society," reading that first sentence several times, trying to parse it (while simultaneously savoring its rotting beauty).
Translation aside, I wavered between 3 and 4 stars, since I was not sure it compared as well to other works by Artaud I have read. So we'll say 3.5? This is not exactly a novel and not exactly a history. As with most of his prose, it's split between passages of brutal, visceral, and dreamlike body imagery and then more theoretical passages built off this. The source here is historical and Artaud takes great delight in describing the religious rituals and picking apart the life and progeny of Heliogabalus. Clearly a lot of research was put into this, and primarily from sources close to the period. He's not so much interested in direct transmission of events as he is in relating the events to his general ideas, particularly in envisioning Heliogabalus as an anarchist intent on destroying the Roman Empire from within. The pagan rituals and alchemical symbols bear relation to his ideas on theatre as cruelty and so forth, but this is something that makes more sense if the reader is familiar with Artaud's work in a broader context. Connections could also be drawn to his writings on the Tarahumara. Always the idea of performance as ritual, of symbols drawn into the material realm, thereby transforming it into something truer and purer (transmutation, if you will). But Artaud is essentially a monist, and this transmutation must come first by the stripping of boundaries and limitations. Therefore: no stage, no text, only gesture.
It's hard for me not to ramble over the thing, as I always find his way of seeing so interesting, even when I don't entirely agree with it. It's almost as if the intensity of it is enough, as if his single-minded focus on this one idea were all that mattered. In the end, it's not my favorite (still "Theatre and Its Double," or maybe "The Peyote Dance," or maybe "Jet of Blood" for the lulz). But very interesting and worth a read if you like crazy French Surrealists with a penchant for plague and blood imagery....more
I actually read the edition that is now out of print, but I bought the RE/Search edition a couple of years ago, just so I could have a copy. Haven't rI actually read the edition that is now out of print, but I bought the RE/Search edition a couple of years ago, just so I could have a copy. Haven't read the whole thing since '98 or thereabouts. What I like about this book is the way it investigates the world of freakshows through interviews and 1st hand accounts. In this sense it's a unique artifact of a world that doesn't really exist anymore. ...more
The story, such as it is, concerns a young man, Matthieu, caught at night as a stranger in a mysterious town. How precisely he comes into the town isThe story, such as it is, concerns a young man, Matthieu, caught at night as a stranger in a mysterious town. How precisely he comes into the town is never fully explained. Matthieu wanders through the town in an effort to connect with other humans only to discover that the town’s inhabitants are not what they seem. The only true human connection he makes is to a beggar boy who reminds him of his own youth. Throughout the story, Matthieu seems guided by cosmic forces beyond his control or understanding, leading to a strange and tragic end. Because the story is so strikingly odd and surprising, there are many details I’m choosing to leave out.
The dark, foreboding atmosphere and sense of alienation of The Night of Lead bears similarity to Kafka, whose work has also been associated with Expressionism. There is no concept of The Law, however, and much like the Polish writer, Bruno Schulz (who was also deeply influenced by Kafka), Jahnn invests more attention in beautiful language and strange, rich imagery. Whereas Schulz uncovers a secret, magical world beneath the world of domesticity, Jahnn’s world is more symbolic in nature, representing various truths of existence. There’s something elemental and mystical about Jahnn’s world, no doubt influenced by his obsession with Nature and pre-Christian paganism.
Besides being considered an Expressionist, Jahnn was also lumped with other German writers as a magic realist, before the term was primarily associating with authors of Hispanic origin. It is likely that fans of magic realism and fantastic literature would find much to like in the work of Jahnn. And fans of the Gothic, grotesque, surreal, and irreal would find much as well.
After reading the piece in Jezebel on this book, I decided it might be fun to re-read this book yet again. I never read V.C. Andrews as a kid. This waAfter reading the piece in Jezebel on this book, I decided it might be fun to re-read this book yet again. I never read V.C. Andrews as a kid. This was the first of her novels I read in high school, after a friend lent me a copy. It's her only stand-alone novel, with no suggestion of a sequel in the plotting, making it unique within her output (including the many ghost-written series).
Having also read a couple of the Dollanganger books, I can attest to the fact that Andrews is hardly a great writer. Her prose is often clunky, and as noted in the Jezebel piece, her dialogue is over-expository, like reading a soap opera. The content of her stories is equally trashy and over-the-top. Her characterization is sometimes simplistic. Vera, whose motivations are believable enough, ends up too much of a straight villain, single-mindedly bent on revenge; while Arden's underlying weaknesses are brushed aside and never fully explored, something that might have granted him more depth.
BUT. There's something really compelling and unique about this book (and Andrews' work in general). Her fractured family dynamics, the simultaneous dysfunction and closeness hiding the twisted secrets, some always lurking near the surface, others buried deeper. Her collection of grotesques; no matter how beautiful or talented a character might be , there's always something perverse about them, some vice or disability. (Interestingly, Billie, a character whose physical disability should render her as much a grotesque as Vera, has a personality free of any vice.) The way Andrews uses mirroring, specifically how Ellsbeth and Vera form an alternate family (the Lowes could even be treated as another alternate, the only fully functioning unit of the 3). Sylvia as a symbol of the sin lurking w/in the mansion/family/everyone. The forest as another resonant symbol for danger, sin, primordial desire. The navigation of personal fears, identity, family, morality, and sex.
Which is not to say that "My Sweet Audrina" is great literature or anything. It's just a compelling Gothic yarn with many interesting elements that does a good job tackling a certain territory that I like to explore....more