Caveat: What follows is the review of a book that I originally read and reviewed in May, 2000. My thoughts and review of the book today, I think, woulCaveat: What follows is the review of a book that I originally read and reviewed in May, 2000. My thoughts and review of the book today, I think, would not be the same as they were 16 years ago. However, since I have no intention of re-reading the book to provide an updated review, the following will have to suffice.
There are some books that are difficult to put down. Ann Beattie's first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, published in 1976, kept my attention for twenty hours or so. The chilly scenes of winter tend to melt appropriately as one grows accustomed to Beattie's characters, who become like familiar friends you don't want to leave behind after the last page.
In some ways, this is a simple novel, but dangles into narrower and more profound themes, a sort of cultural expose that hints on issues as complex as defining gender or exploring the meaning of love. The narration is a bit jagged, which was disorienting in the first few pages, and I'm not sure I always appreciated Beattie's style of inserting images of previously described motifs into the stream-of-consciousness narration through the use of fragmented sentences. But it worked, and here and there it worked quite nicely.
Chilly scenes melted appropriately...Reading it in one sitting...
The strongest element in this novel is the characterization, coupled with the descriptions of daily experience. The protagonist, a twenty-six year old man, is a sort of cynical lover, who loves his womanizing best friend, loves his mother and perhaps even his step-father, and of course loves the woman he can't have. He is sentimental and idealistic at times, projecting Norman Rockwell images of his own desire for personal and familial communion, but he is also bitterly realistic, especially when this involves his own losses and his own mother's gradual loss of sanity. We are brought into his emotional realm in a concrete manner, able to empathize with him as he relates with the various characters who people Beattie's wry and ironic universe.
Another interesting element of Chilly Scenes... for me are the cultural references. Written in 1975, twenty-five years ago (when I was seven years old), the twenty-something baby-boomers in this work have quit drugs, settled down, grown a bit harried by responsibility and skeptical about man/woman relationships, yet still await Bob Dylan's latest, recommend Janis Joplin, wonder what kids on allegedly drug-free campuses do?, and see everyone in the world as possibly a bit crazy, and worthy of pity. The references to various pop musicians and celebrity figures of the time add a certain cultural quality to the novel, while at the same time expose the superficiality of the culture itself, especially in terms of defining love and interpersonal relationships in a meaningful way.
Overall, this novel is an entertaining and excellent read, with well developed characters, an intriguing plot, good descriptions and a lot of humor. It's chief drawback is that it ended too soon....more
Caveat: What follows is the review of a book that I originally read and reviewed in June, 2000. My thoughts and review of the book today, I think, wouCaveat: What follows is the review of a book that I originally read and reviewed in June, 2000. My thoughts and review of the book today, I think, would not be the same as they were 16 years ago. However, since I have no intention of re-reading the book to provide an updated review, the following will have to suffice.
In recent years my thoughts have leapt back to an analogy often supplied by Stephen King in various interviews, that of the role of the horror writer who pleasantly lures you with seemingly innocuous words into a dark alley in order to turn and scare you witless. He has half of that right, I think.
King certainly possesses the verbal power and literary stamina to capture one's attention, writing in his trademark conversational style, which is filled with references and allusions culled from the collective media consciousness. However, in some of his 90s fiction I'd felt more like he was luring the reader into a dark alley merely to turn, make funny faces, and maybe expose himself; there is an implied gratuitousness that sometimes arises from the conversational style he employs, a gushing forth of words and ideas that approaches lazy sentimental reverie.
First, the bad news...
King's aforementioned streams of excess are often distracting and annoying growths on the text. First, this can be found in his hammering a point to death, rather than subtly making it clear. King has shown himself capable of both kinds of writing, but when the point has to do with the inward thoughts of his characters, and one doesn't necessarily identify with the character, the relentlessness of his making the point begins to create distance, rather than empathy or identification, between reader and character. For instance, we are told pretty straightforwardly that Bobby Garfield in the first section of Hearts in Atlantis, a long story titled Low Men in Yellow Coats, like the novel, Lord of the Flies. We don't gather from his response to it that he likes it and it has made an impact on him, but we are told in no uncertain terms, repeatedly, how much he loves it. King spells it out for us. Over and over again.
Secondly, due perhaps to his phenomenal success, there is a level of subtext in his fiction which includes a kind of editorializing. For instance, again in the first section, he opines, pretty much straight from the narrator (rather than as a theme surfacing from the characters and plot), on his view of what makes good literature. This is just short of a straightforward comment to the narattee, spiced with perhaps King’s own bitter biases. (On that note: Why are some of the characters surnamed after famous literary writers, such as Brautigan and Auster? Is this intentional, I wonder?)
Thirdly, again in Low Men..., King turns the story suddenly into a fantasy, confusingly correlating with his Dark Tower series, which is a little disappointing as it reaches its climactic pique. His devoted fans of the series will no doubt delight in this, but it broaches the unity of the story itself in a disturbing way. There is nothing wrong with fantasy, of course, but here it seemed to smack a bit of the deus ex machina, the god who appears from the sky to save the day at the very last minute (though, admittedly, not all is saved), unnecessarily punting to an entire field of story that lay beyond the margins of the present text.
Characters in Conflict
I'm ambivalent about King's conversational style when it comes to describing his characters. He imbues them with a level of thought that is too obvious, it seems, as those who would be moved by dramatic-film-school motivations, less complex than real people and more like projections of what one might view a stranger’s thoughts to be like. In other words, King's characters often see themselves simplistically and sentimentally, even if they are in despair, and he brings us within such close range to their thoughts and feelings, that each character or persona tends to be defined as seen through the gauze of their own sentimental self-perception. We can observe the fallacy more clearly when King and the reader all realize that his foolish characters, his “bad guys,” are trapped in self-justifications, imprisoned by their desires; but when his "good guys" are portrayed with a like kind of protective zeal, separating the wheat from the chaff becomes more difficult: is this character really like this, or is this just what he thinks he is like?
Reading King, I often feel as though I'm sitting with an older relative, listening as he tells me stories from his idealized past, and the people he describes are idealized too.
Yet, King still presents us with believable characters, middle-class Americans stuffed full of popular culture who know nothing else, a cadre of parochial denizens whose desires for love or for communion or to just be happy are the true virtues, and anything more abstract or difficult is condemned as high-brow arrogance.
And for this reason, because it stimulates an old concept of the past dwelling in my own suburban childhood, I am able to understand the conflicts and desires of the Bobby Garfields and the Carol Gerbers who populate King's slightly altered universe.
Will this close the chapter...?
Hearts in Atlantis is partly both a magnification and a commentary on our culture's most recent media-darling of history, the 60s, and all the familiar themes rise up like steam from the heat: drugs, music, bell-bottoms, Vietnam, protest, talk of peace and talk of love and their representative symbols.
I admit I felt a bit distraught to discover that King had chosen to revel in and glorify a period of time already overly-exploited by the media for the last fifteen to twenty years! This sort of historical self-infatuation of a culture has successfully created a mythos of symbols and values which King further takes advantage of in order to submerge us into the scenery and rhetoric of "Atlantis," e.g. the unit of time and experience many people in the generation preceding mine claim to have "come from," as if it were a place, and not connected by a sequence of minutes and hours and weeks to the place where we are now.
Now for the good news...
Yet, despite the obviousness of King's willingness to push the cultural buttons that appeal not only to aging baby-boomers, but to many of their ideological children as well, King doesn't linger too often in the nostalgia, but creates a dramatic tension through simple conflicts in plot which beautifully symbolize the worn-out cliches in a fresh way.
The second story in the book, Hearts in Atlantis, not only connects thematically to the first story, but illustrates the rhetoric of "values" without denigrating into propaganda. Perhaps the best story in these tightly interwoven episodes, Hearts... totally lacks any appeal to the supernatural or the fantastic. It is a straightforward, moving, true and powerful piece of writing, and I'm sure will make a great film.
Where Low Men... grips the reader, returning us to King's brilliant ability to convey the nuances of childhood, the title story dwells on the struggles of young adulthood, discipline and identity. Moving, though here and there sentimental, King deftly leaves the ground, his pen takes flight from his usual conversational ramble, and in the succeeding three stories, he hovers just above the level of plain talking, sometimes swooning again to his previous gait, but at other times, rocketing in a flurry of inspired verbal ecstasy. There are moments when King, who can write, is just hot, you can feel it. The words and sentences burn through you, yet are delicate and easy on the tongue.
I knew that King must have written some of these paragraphs in a fever when I read a nonsense allusion to one of his old stories, laying oddly on the page for no apparent reason (yet appropriate to the flow): "sometimes they come back." Sometimes the flow comes back, apparently, for King, the groove returns, we are through talking and its time to make love.
These are the moments of good, perhaps even great, writing, but they are fewer, stylistically, than the old gimmicks, i.e., relying on the tension of standard plot conflicts and the element of fantasy/horror to hook you.
Overall, this is one of King's most passionate novels, and it is really about the theme he always returns to...growing up: growing up in the fifties and sixties in affluent, middle-class America with the kinds of values that have no undergirding, the provincial and self-absolutized conventions of his parents...replaced with the self-absolutized values of his generation. Growing up in an evil and decadent world of abuse and violence and loss, whitewashed on t.v., but growing up, and reflecting on what is lost and what is past. For King, the Atlantis that sinks beneath the surface is not only a cultural time of apparent chaos, but Atlantis is also childhood and youth.
That makes this a universally appealing, somewhat flawed, but highly entertaining novel, often moving, which I'd recommend to a friend not willing to read more difficult work....more
Caveat: What follows is the review of a book that I originally read and reviewed in June, 2000. My thoughts and review of the book today, I think, wouCaveat: What follows is the review of a book that I originally read and reviewed in June, 2000. My thoughts and review of the book today, I think, would not be the same as they were sixteen years ago. However, since I have no intention of re-reading the book to provide an updated review, the following will have to suffice.
Flesh and Blood spans a long period of time in 466 pages--it begins in 1935 and concludes in 2035. Yet, the weight really settles in the middle years, a twenty year period between 1960 and 1980. The publishers claim that this is the story of three generations of Americans, beginning with Constantine, who as a child immigrates to America with his family, and concluding with his grandson. However, the plot more or less settles on the second generation, the children of Constantine and his Italian wife, Mary--Susan, Todd and Zoe--who grow up in the turbulence of the 1960s.
Within that twenty year period, the text concerns itself with the tensions between family members as each child grows into his own identity: Susan, a successful upper-middle class housewife; Todd, an insecure homosexual who struggles for confidence; and Zoe, a loose counterculture waif who bears a black child, then soon discovers she is HIV positive. These tensions originate in the compulsive behavior of Mary, the mother, and the angry violence of Constantine, who seems like a character who is derived straight from Steinbeck's East of Eden. Like those who live in Steinbeck's novel, the character's that populate Cunningham's world each tend to embrace an ideal future, sometimes clasping it, but often feeling alienated from their hopes and from themselves and from each other.
The strength of Cunningham's prose lay not so much in his characters or plot as it does in the exquisite imagery of his prose. A stylistic poetic flow undergirds each sentence, yet without heaviness. Some passages are extremely moving because of the wording itself, the impacted beauty of the language. We come not so much to care for the characters as we do for the aesthetic hot spots, points where paragraphs flow like waterfalls to form crystal and calm metaphorical pools by each segment's conclusion. The same effect is also achieved through use of simple symbols that are emotionally tied to the taut suggestions of desire. The stunning writing of Flesh and Blood, coupled with the emanation of unfulfilled appetites that arise from his characters, redeems the novel from thematic uncertainty and a plot that tends to fragment carelessly.
Hunger and lust is the central movement of Flesh and Blood, the material, bodily need for sustenance that transcends matter, the desire for love, for completion, for holiness. Often, Cunningham reveals this basic human need as his characters stumble through various, strange paths, to fill it, whether through sex, or through stealing inexpensive miscellaneous items, or through financial success, or through finding someone else.
One of the primary ways the characters, especially Will, try to fill spiritual hunger is through sex. There are many descriptive erotic scenes in Flesh and Blood, some of them perhaps too descriptive for my straight-laced tastes. Much of the erotica describes homosexual sex between men, centered around the experiences of Will as he searches for his own identity, and for a lover who will fulfill him. The only time sex between a man and a woman is described, the participants are piquing on LSD, and here, though wonderfully written, this is not erotica, but a poetic segment playing on Zoe's psychological fears and desires. Other non-conventional characters enter stage left, such as an older male friend of Zoe's who is a practicing, mature and worldly-wise transvestite. The presence of this character introduces some segments that bring in an element of strong humor which provides a little relief from the heaviness of the theme, especially when he is introduced to other, more conventional family members.
While the thematic stream of hunger runs through the novel, contrasted with the rootlessness and distance or even confusion each character feels when desire is not met, there are points when it seems to drift and expand, especially towards the second half of the book. One gets the impression at times that some of the characters read the first part, and began to feel sentimental about themselves, and that is enough: they sort of sigh and moan and without explanation become personas that are less than the expectation of the strong first half of the novel has set them up to become. The trauma of the plot, Zoe afflicted with AIDS and slowly dying, tends to eat up the theme with blank abstract sadness. It is true that unfulfilled hunger is sad; but dying of AIDS is not only sad, it is senseless and tragic, and the tragedy of it overwhelms everything else until one feels too emotionally exhausted to even think of being hungry.
The characters are thus, for all their hunger and desires, a bit hollow and forgettable. The theme drifts too often, and ironically, Flesh and Blood tends to feel haunted by characters who become their own memories, rather than filled with the literary substance of Cunningham's rich imagination. The end result is a somewhat mediocre presentation, but one that is imbued with tremendous emotion and value because of its implicit poetry...more
As one might notice by the date, I read this book more than thirty years ago when I was fourteen years old. I have no plans to re-read it, so offer aAs one might notice by the date, I read this book more than thirty years ago when I was fourteen years old. I have no plans to re-read it, so offer a brief review now with the caveat that your reviewer is likely untrustworthy.
In short, the book claims to be the true story of a house possessed, which overtakes the personalities of its inhabitants. I recall Stephen King crediting the popularity of the book to "economic unease," postulating at some point that it is a commentary on struggling families, purchasing a house they could not really afford, and the destructive nature of capitalist society. Well, okay. I am sure I did not get any of that from it when I read it.
In fact, I vaguely recall that it scared me. But to my memory it is not a great work of horror, but rather vulgar and exploitative. I have so many books to read before I die, I can't imagine taking the time to read this one again. So if you choose to go there, have at it and take anything I say, due to faulty memory and general prejudices with a grain of salt....more