Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is divided into 6 separate stories that encompass 6 distinct genres told in 6 distinct writing styles. Its designation a...moreCloud Atlas by David Mitchell is divided into 6 separate stories that encompass 6 distinct genres told in 6 distinct writing styles. Its designation as a novel, despite some ham-fisted echoes of one story within another, is really up for debate. It is also one of those post-modern “experiments” that self-reflexively defends itself against its critics.
So, before the reader can decry that the thriller section, entitled “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” is sub-par Crichton and Grisham, another character remarks that the very text you have just read is written in “neat little chapteroids, doubtless with one eye on the Hollywood screenplay.” But, I guess my question is: if a character knows the writing is hackneyed and clichéd, and by proxy, Mitchell, the author, knows he is riffing on the supermarket checkout potboilers, does that make it anymore pleasurable for me to read 98 pages of this stuff?
And, before one gets too hung up on the weaknesses of any one particular section, the polymath Mitchell has already moved on to another literary form and voice: a journal echoing Melville’s later name-checked Typee, epistles rife with Victorian turns of phrase, a biography of a “veddy, veddy” British cad, an interview with a “fabricant” right out of Dick’s Blade Runner, and so on and so on, around the bookstore we go…
By the time I reached the novel’s center, a post-apocalyptic vignette told in a created patois mimicking slave narratives, I became ever more sure that Mitchell was great at literary gamesmanship, but he was very poor at holding the attention of a reader like myself who usually embraces a challenge. I love the post-modern trickery and difficult allusions of someone like Delillo, but in contrast, Mitchell’s experimentation comes off as a masturbatory exercise in search of engaging character and narrative. Maybe the fact that I’m not a fan of some of the authors and genres that Mitchell so openly uses as ventriloquist dummies only exacerbated my frustrations.
So, where do I come down on this one? The sheer audacity and scope of the novel is awe-inspiring at times. Several times I wondered, how could someone write this? (Of course, maybe a more apt question would be, why did someone want to?). And I was engaged by the end by its exploration of oppression and the power of storytelling to record facts and fictions alike—themes that are really more clearly delineated (even didactic) by the novel’s close than I initially suspected they would be. And, I probably wouldn’t dissuade another adventurous reader from picking this novel up. But, boy, it sure is a slog…
Being as it is near impossible to gauge the narrative strength of “A Christmas Carol”—the basic story and its many film and animated adaptations so in...moreBeing as it is near impossible to gauge the narrative strength of “A Christmas Carol”—the basic story and its many film and animated adaptations so ingrained in our culture—I still can’t help myself from wondering if “The Cricket on the Hearth” would not be an even more beloved holiday staple if only more people knew of it. “Cricket” was, after all, more beloved in Dickens’s own time. The narrative twists and beautifully written passages give ample reason why a 19th Century readership, if not even a 20th and 21st century one, would prefer it. Of course, how many people are even thinking of Dickens’s knotty sentences and didactic moralizing in his original “Carol” text when they claim to love the book? Aren’t they usually just thinking of Alastair Sim or Mickey Mouse?
The real dud out of these first three of Dickens’s five holiday novellas is definitely “The Chimes,” another supernatural holiday story about the mistreatment of the poor, this time at New Year’s Eve. However, instead of Ebenezer Scrooge, one of literature’s most villainous of characters who is in due need of his comeuppance, Dickens’s New Year's goblins pile their heartbreak upon the seemingly good-hearted and undeserving Toby “Trotty” Veck. Clearly an attempt by Dickens to try to cash in again on the earlier success of “Carol.” (less)
Vowell describes Americans as “fun-loving dopes” and admits that she has come to appreciate her “one dumb-ass little passion” of Pop-A-Shot arcade bas...moreVowell describes Americans as “fun-loving dopes” and admits that she has come to appreciate her “one dumb-ass little passion” of Pop-A-Shot arcade basketball precisely because it has “no point at all.” And, while such an ethic can provide for a breezy and intermittently smirk-inducing read, the inclusion of some essays in this collection for seemingly “no point at all” (toss-offs on Tom Cruise, former Dallas cowboy coach Tom Landry, and New German Cinema particularly read like non-sequiturs) starts to make the columns of Maureen O’Dowd almost look like probing and restrained editorials by comparison.
Luckily, for both Vowell and her readers, her deft handling of topics like the commodification of natural and historical sites, our growing divide from our parents and distinguished figures of the past (the great “The First Thanksgiving”), and our national want to create an unvarnished historical record of our country (the two standout pieces, “California as an Island” and the titular, “The Partly Cloudy Patriot”) add some much needed heft to this hit-or-miss collection, in the end warranting a few hours of your time to weed out the gems.
Choice line: “A person keen on all things French is called a Francophile. One who has a thing for England is called an Anglophile. An admirer of Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s is called Pat Buchanan.”(less)
Much has been made by historians of literature, and in the preface of this very edition, of the importance Guy de Mau...more4-Star rating for Pierre et Jean.
Much has been made by historians of literature, and in the preface of this very edition, of the importance Guy de Maupassant’s “Pierre et Jean” plays in the shift in French literature from the traditional realist novel to a newfound concern with the interiority of characters. However, it is equally important to note that such a distinction is not only of academic interest, but it is also what makes this short novel, from a writer more famed for his short stories, remain so exciting and vital for modern readers.
Maupassant sets up a fascinating dialectic between two brothers, the elder Pierre, representing rationality triumphing over emotion, and his younger and more cherished sibling, Jean, representing the dominance of heart over the mind. Pierre can be spiteful, selfish, and lazy, but de Maupassant deviously makes him introspective and aware of his failings. The more he wrestles to become a better man, and the more de Maupassant hints that he may not be the only one to blame for his venomous feelings, the more readers are lured into identifying with him. One particularly striking passage dramatizes the violently oscillating thoughts within Pierre’s own mind juxtaposed against the raging breakwaters in the beautifully realized environs of the port of Le Havre.
The even shorter ‘novelette,’ “The Roque Girl,” is of note for its deft use of the elements of detective fiction and for the shocking description of, and the attendant prurient interest of the local townspeople in, the rape and murder of a young girl.
Other notably strong stories included here are “Mouche,” “Shepherd’s Leap,” “On the Water,” and “In the Fields.”
NOTE ON THIS EDITION: Many of the short stories noted in the preface and the short de Maupassant bio of this edition as being his most famous and lasting works are omitted here, because, according to scholar Francis Steegmuller, they have been published innumerable times elsewhere. I would think one or two, namely “The Necklace” or “Boule de Suif,” would be included. (less)
Bret Easton Ellis has always adopted two distinct personae as an author—that of the lurid purveyor of ultra violence and base sexual appetites set out...moreBret Easton Ellis has always adopted two distinct personae as an author—that of the lurid purveyor of ultra violence and base sexual appetites set out to shock a bourgeois critical establishment that dares to question his literary mettle, or the closet moralist who wags his finger at the involvement of his characters, and the attendant interest of his fans, in said behavior.
Interestingly enough, it is these same warring impulses that put Ellis in a real narrative predicament in Imperial Bedrooms, a sequel written for the 25th Anniversary of his first novel, Less Than Zero. Does he force his narrator, Clay, to undergo a moral catharsis and risk scorn from his fans and critics alike for attempting to humanize the hollow, affectless character remembered from the earlier novel, or does he remain true to the moral turpitude and relentless vacuity of Zero and risk simply repeating the very narrative that he is supposedly continuing?
After reading Imperial Bedrooms, I think that I can answer the latter question with a certain degree of certainty: Ellis is not afraid of repetition. Where I may see narrative stasis, Ellis likely sees thematic unity with his earlier work.
As stated, this is a literal sequel that features most of the same characters, in mostly the same emotional states, from Less than Zero. One short interlude Clay spends with two teenage prostitutes—one male, one female—would be better suited to Patrick Bateman of American Psycho fame. The conspiracy murder plot echoes the equally aimless and unresolved terrorist plot of Glamorama. The threatening phone calls and texts, along with the meta-narrative that includes Ellis himself as a character in the novel, are brought in part and parcel from his last disappointment, 2005’s Lunar Park. The only thing missing from Imperial Bedrooms, other than the kitchen sink, may be the literal vampire from the interconnected vignettes of The Informers (although Clay has written a screenplay for a movie similarly named The Listeners).
Equal parts Hollywood satire, Raymond Chandler noir parody, and a mixtape of Ellis himself, Imperial Bedrooms can’t help but feel like a muddled toss-off—in fact, at a mere 170 pages, and sporting margins wide enough to fit your thumbs in, it is hard to even call it a novel. However, if there is interest to be found here, it is in trying to decide where Clay stands at the narrative’s end in relation to the question I posed at the outset: is he a reformed hedonist, or, as David Bowie might say, is our Major Tom now just “hitting an all time low”?
In the best passages of the novel, Clay reveals a newfound vulnerability as he becomes involved with Rain Turner, an aspiring starlet who is trying to net a role in the film being made from his screenplay (if his sway as a producer trumps his insignificance as a mere writer is never fully revealed). And while the commentary on the fetishization of youth and beauty in Hollywood is stale and clichéd, the scenes where Clay tries to perfect an intimate, monogamous relationship with Rain after decades of destroying any chance he has ever had at one stand as some of the most emotionally resonant Ellis has ever written.
However, as the novel’s climax seems to hint, as much as Clay may feign a wanting of love and commitment, glimmers of hope in the world of Ellis quickly fade. Clay may have to confront the fact that the moral darkness of his peers and his L.A. can never match the darkness within, the darkness that he hides from the ones he claims to love, and that he struggles to hide from himself. So, as to the verdict on Clay’s moral rehabilitation: like the intended genre of the novel, and the success of the novel as a sequel to the seminal Zero, Ellis pitches it somewhere down the middle. How appropriate for this most moral of carnival barkers. (less)
My best friend (and many others) claim this is one of the greatest novels ever written—and the famous Steinbeck moniker on the cover and the sheer sco...moreMy best friend (and many others) claim this is one of the greatest novels ever written—and the famous Steinbeck moniker on the cover and the sheer scope of the thing could almost fool someone into thinking that was true shortly after finishing all of its 600 pages.
However, after brief reflection, I would argue that not only is East of Eden not one of the greatest novels ever written, but it’s not even good literature. It’s a melodramatic soap opera that will keep you mildly entertained by its over-the-top characterizations (especially the misogynistic portrayal of pure evil that is Cathy) and flimsy plot machinations, but it certainly will not give you much to think about.
My complaints are far more than academic—the many obvious flaws in this admittedly ambitious novel undermine what most of us expect from thought-provoking and captivating literature.
Steinbeck focuses on two families—the Trasks, a family rife with conflict with Biblical portents; and the Hamiltons, a large family that represents Steinbeck’s actual ancestors in the Salinas Valley in California around the turn-of-the-century—yet he fails to ever marry these two far-reaching and wildly discursive narratives into a single, unified whole. Narrative tangents dominate the first half of the novel, while the ostensible focus of the novel, the so-called “modern retelling of Cain and Abel,” is rushed through and under-dramatized in the second half of the novel. A last act love triangle, the focus of the later Elia Kazan film adaptation, is so under-developed as to be almost non-existent.
The use of language is straightforward and spare, while dialogue is boilerplate and at times begging to be excised entirely for the banalities it recounts. The aphorisms espoused by a Chinese servant help to enrich the flat dialogue, but the excessive use soon borders on the parodic, if not even the racially stereotypical.
The novel is long, but so over-plotted and over-populated that characters can function only as allegorical figures (usually only at the base level of either “pure” or “evil”) rather than realistic, complicated individuals. Hint: the good ones have blonde hair and “A” names; the baddies are “dark” and some are even emblazoned with scars (the mark of the beast?) on their foreheads.
Organization within chapters and across the novel as a whole is puzzling and counter-intuitive, and it suggests that Steinbeck really had no idea how he wanted to craft his narrative, or what elements he wanted to focus on. What you end up with is a narrative hodgepodge, an easily digestible “epic,” a “classic” ready-made for the beach.
What works here is obvious: Sebold utilizes a unique narrative perspective as a small girl observes events from heaven after being raped and murdered....moreWhat works here is obvious: Sebold utilizes a unique narrative perspective as a small girl observes events from heaven after being raped and murdered. As the girl's family members grapple with grief in their own ways, the killer resides in the same neighborhood and goes about his daily misdeeds. The first third of the book is a fast, engaging read largely due to these stock genre elements. Not high art, but it keeps the reader's interest...
HOWEVER, anyone who finds Sebold to be an artful manipulator of prose or finds the last 50 pages of this book to be narratively or intellectually satisfying cannot possibly be playing with a full deck.
I have my Masters in English, and there is no amount of literary criticism that can make sense of Sebold's dangling modifiers and inexplicable analogies ("his heart was, like an ingredient in a recipe, reduced"). These wouldn't make it through the high school creative writing class that I teach.
Her haphazard use of motifs (eyes, photography, the color blue) and a forced metaphor in the last 20 pages that tries to account for the novel's title also wouldn't pass muster with my red pen.
Furthermore, the way Sebold wraps up her story is not only at odds with the entire narrative established thus far, it is downright offensive. How a middle-brow female readership made this a bestseller is beyond me. Call me a prude, but I have a bit of a problem with a 14-year-old rape victim wanting nothing more than to come back to life so she can pop her cherry the right way. And she doesn't even mind hijacking her lesbian classmate's body to do it!
This novel is a really discordant read. Sebold's view of the world is simultaneously warped AND naive. For a long time, I tried to explain the narrative cliches and obvious declarations of emotional states as an extension of a young narrative voice, but, the truth is, it is Sebold who needs to grow up. What else can explain a supposed work of literature having a married woman engage in a sexual tryst in a deserted mall air filtration room with a man who has zero motivation to sleep with her and no logical reason to have access to that room (is he Len Fenerman: Mall Cop?), or two teenagers sneaking into an abandoned house in a rainstorm to make whoopee. Luckily, we find out the father of a close friend owns the house, so the teenagers can later purchase the house and make a family there (without aid of any income!!).
I leave you now with my favorite eye-roller, a juxtaposition of a serial murderer leaving his house with the murdered girl's mother having the aforementioned mall affair: "Mr. Harvey left his house for the final time while my mother was granted her most temporal wish. To find a doorway out of her ruined heart, in merciful adultery." Ahh, merciful adultery. Priceless.
Some other great moments:
--Mr. Harvey's childhood memories, which play like lost scenes from Paper Moon.
--Mr. Harvey's unnecessary death by icicle.
--The symposium for Gifted Students where a counselor suggests students plan the perfect murder much to Lindsey's dismay.
--Lindsey turns into a Mission Impossible agent to escape Mr. Harvey in Sebold's rushed, one page action sequence
--Mr. Salmon's two (!) surgeries (along with the murdered daughter and separation from his wife, I think it is safe to say that the 70s is not Mr. Salmon's decade).
--Grandpa dances with Susie in heaven, when dogs aren't howling in unison, and she isn't sitting in her magic gazebo
--Teenage boys interested in cornices, gothic revival, and gardens.
After reading many other DeLillo works, and, like any truthful person would admit, often being behind on my reading of the major works, I know that I’...moreAfter reading many other DeLillo works, and, like any truthful person would admit, often being behind on my reading of the major works, I know that I’m coming to this one late. However, by reading White Noise in 2009, I can offer this observation—the sign of a great work of literature is that, even when reading it removed from the time in which it was written, it still feels like the author is writing about the immediate present in which you are reading.
DeLillo, ever topical, at times almost outright prescient, deals with big issues, and he does so through a complex interweaving of humor and dread, pop and high culture, sitcom one-liners and Socratic dialogues. And it is only fair to admit that his novels are, even to an admirer like myself, simultaneously thrilling and exasperating.
At one point in the novel, the main character imagines that he has glimpsed Death incarnate and describes him as “an aphorist of last things.” Funnily enough, that description applies to DeLillo himself, his inscrutable koans about the entropy of the post-modern world piling up, one after another, page after page, until the reader’s mind is so saturated with ideas, some deep, others half-formed, that one wants to hurl the book at the wall. Yet, DeLillo’s style is explainable, if even commendable for its artistic restraint, for it accurately mirrors the world that he creates, a world (not unlike ours) where people (not unlike us) are bombarded by myriad messages and bits of information, but are none the wiser for it.
As for the plot, like any of DeLillo’s work, or the work of his post-modernist contemporaries, there is very little. This one involves a family extended by many marriages and divorces, and an “airborne toxic event” (a phrase fittingly appropriated by pop culture in the form of a recent band name). Yet, really the book is about moments, not a plot; about themes, not necessarily character. And the major theme explored here is as old as literature, or human life, itself: the fear of death.
This is a major work by a major author, although I think I am still partial to Delillo’s earlier The Names. And, while this is the exact book a graduate student like myself can find intellectual stimulation in, I freely warn that DeLillo offers little of the pleasures that one associates with the form of the novel. However, even if you don’t fall into the category of budding academic, any reader should be able to take two things away from White Noise: 1) a pervasive atmosphere of dread that is hard to shake off even after you are long finished reading, and 2) never seeing the supermarket the same way ever again.