Some feminist critic once criticized John Updike for being "a penis with a thesaurus".
This is a pretty devastating critique, I think. Not because i...more Some feminist critic once criticized John Updike for being "a penis with a thesaurus".
This is a pretty devastating critique, I think. Not because it's so dead-on as much as its catchy, funny, easy to remember and makes its point with elegant precision. It's most likely totally wrong and unfair and such (I haven't read much Updike) but that also makes it kind of awesome in a sniping, political-cartoon kind of way.
Taking a page from this person (I think it was Kate Millet?) I'm going to say right here and now that Bret Easton Ellis is an AmEx with a thesaurus.
Thing is, this is the story that gets so widely anthologized that it becomes people's first- and only-exposure to the world of Faulkner; the runonsen...more Thing is, this is the story that gets so widely anthologized that it becomes people's first- and only-exposure to the world of Faulkner; the runonsentences; the stream-of-consciousness; the family drama (or what Freud called 'the family romance'); the pervading fatalism and doom and shame and endurance on the part of the characters, no All-American hero or come from behind, Horatio Alger here, no sir...
What happens, as I see it at least, is that unsuspecting kids who have to take a higher-level English class in high school sort of peruse it and turn the pages and write notes for the test or the 5 page paper that's due by the end of the month or something and therefore don't get the chance to adjust the mental scenery enough to absorb Old Bill's gravitas and pensiveness and rare and sparkling immediacy...
The thing is, style is destiny. Always has been and always will be. What I mean by that, at least in part, is that style is the very thing that sets a writer apart from the thousands of other scribblers. It's the unified field theory of a particular writer. The writer in question here, remember, went broke and saw all his books go out of circulation and was pretty much living on Hollywood money (David Thomson called it a form of grant) and it took Malcolm Cowley and several years' reflection to appreciate the moral sweep and tragic oomph of Yoknapatawpha County.
Water runs slow through flat land, friends and neighbors. It just do.
So anyway the writer's style is his substance in large part because it's the individual stamp they put on their texts. I mean, Shakespeare is Shakespeare and Coltrane is Coltrane and Godard is Godard, y'know?...the minute they step into the room the whole atmosphere changes. The air crackles in a different way. And that also counts for the space between the ears of the audience that sits down to read or listen or watch what these guys come up with.
Style is a huge part of things because I can't shake the thought (I believe, voiced by Sartre) that a writer's style is his metaphysics. It's the relation between the individual consciousness of the human making art and the more nebulous and ephemeral insights into Being and Time and Faith and Action and Agency and Desire and Fate and Society and all that business...
It anchors the words or music or images or colors or clay or whatever within the space of the work itself; emphasizing one aesthetic attribute or another, one image or insight that the artist is trying to put together. Style's the whole ball game in a sense, because you know it when you see it and what you're seeing and reacting to (positively or negatively) is what's pretty much at stake with the whole experience itself.
So what happens is, of course, since Old Bill has ambled his way into the canon- you can't really talk about truly Great Writers in America in the 20th Century without mentioning him, let alone giving him a plumb position as chronicler, bard and seer- that means that a fairly respectable High School English class has got to offer him, a la carte if you will, as an example of foreshadowing or symbolism or what-you-will...
And so of course the real meaning or statement or ambiance or ascertainable quality of the work gets passed over completely. Cat's got a style that doesn't harmonize with your own predilections as a reader (and, let's face it, what kinds of predilections as a reader does a Sophmore English student have, when they don't have a passion or a particular interest in mind) and so it all seems like a bunch of boring, droning, over-written stuff and gets shoved in a distant mental drawer forever.
I only say this because it happened to me.
Thank god I took a class on Faulkner in undergrad and I had the calm and the quiet and the peace of mind to focus my attention on the scene that was being set for me as I read As I Lay Dying for the first time ever.
Something about the hushed, portentous opening chapters with the drinking water from a wooden bucket ("water should never be drunk from metal"- why? Because then you lose the churning of the autumn wind moving through the thin, prickly leaves of the pine trees, and the warmth of the sun radiating off the ripples- that's why, city boy!)
Not to mention the "Chuck. Chuck. Chuck" of the adze. Mama's in the coffin, boay, and we gotta cut it down ourselves. Woosh. Chill runs through me, still. And then there's Darl's soliloquies, Dewy Dell's desperate helplessness in puberty, Addie's furious and unsparing monologue from the Great Beyond..
See Kurosawa's Rashomon (if you haven't already) for a similar multiple-perspective narrative, which also gains momentum and power from being explained and narrated from both outside and inside the story proper almost simultaneously- Reality as explained and lived through, a distinction without a difference in these hermetic worlds- by both immediate participants and observers and re-tellers alike. Kurosawa knows how to do justice to a pissed-off, disembodied, avenging soul come back from the grave to tell you all, like Eliot's Tiresias. So does Faulkner. The effect is sublime.
I mention all this not just to digress (though that's sort of an ancillary benefit) but to make the familiar point that, after all, one doesn't always necessarily remember the PLOT of these kinds of stories as much as one remembers all the little detours and ephemeral moments of recognition while they're on the way up the Freytag Pyramid.
When you travel, getting there should be half the fun. Style is the transportation device that puts you into that other world, the diagesis, the mise en scene. Style is what they can't teach you in English class but its what is retained and kept and what one is nourished by after the initial shock of the text wears off and you numb up and adjust to the various shallows and depths.
I think this is what passionate readers talk about when they call a text 'rewarding' or 'enlightening' or 'enchanting' or whatever. I think it's not only the meat and potatoes, it's the wine and the dessert, too.
As in romance, as in literature: it's not the climax that you remember, not quite, it's the infinite amount of details that one holds onto in the steady onrush of oblivion. The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea...
So anyway poor Barn Burning gets to be the sort of introductory Faulkner and thus becomes that which can only lose its enticement through it being suggested by your teacher before you really know anything for certain and are on the road to find out.
It's best when Tolstoy isn't in preachy-talky mode.
One of the things I like about Tolstoy was his insistence, in art as in life, on really enacting...more It's best when Tolstoy isn't in preachy-talky mode.
One of the things I like about Tolstoy was his insistence, in art as in life, on really enacting his idea(l)s and living them in the flesh as much as he could- whether the flesh was particularly willing would be something else entirely.
The good work seems to add sympathy and dignity and insight and sublimity that outweighs the more overbearing, insomniac obsession not only with righteousness but with grabbing the reader by the lapels and hollering at him to SHAPE UP!
So yeah, I'm fascinated by the tension between Tolstoy's asceticism and his aestheticism...(less)
I realized as I kept reading that the guy knows what he's doing, that he has an idea and a vision and is coming to terms with how to represent said t...more I realized as I kept reading that the guy knows what he's doing, that he has an idea and a vision and is coming to terms with how to represent said things...
All this is to the good. I just wasn't all that interested. Two stars, taken literally.(less)
I read this when I was pretty young. I remember having one of those gold-embossed Classics for Kids hardcovers and being sick or something and just g...more I read this when I was pretty young. I remember having one of those gold-embossed Classics for Kids hardcovers and being sick or something and just going through it hour after hour. I remember slowly turning the cover forward and back, watching the ripple of light from my window pass over the indentations of Tom's face and actually scaring myself with how drastically different it looked without the fully embossed gold shining...he looked positively demonic when the light hit him the right way...
Also remember going to Disney World and seeing Injun' Joe's Cave and shooting fake shotguns through a window in a tree house. I remember them having a shack to sell pb&j sandwiches for something like 6 dollars a pop.
I prefer Huck Finn, but I can't quite speak to this since I haven't read it in years. I was surprised I hadn't added it to my list yet.
I can't quite remember if it was this one or Huck Finn that caused Nietzsche (that's right, ol' thunderpants himself) to write a bunch of letters energetically recommending the book to various friends of his.
I really love that image- poor bastard slumped over a table, reading with what strength he's got left in his burning eyes, nauseated, smelly, smoky stove heating a bare room, laughing to himself at Tawin's adventures. Speaks well of both FWN and MT, equally, I reckon.(less)
I remember taking turns reading this with my mother and my brother when I was maybe 11 or 12 and absolutely loving it. I remember having really excit...more I remember taking turns reading this with my mother and my brother when I was maybe 11 or 12 and absolutely loving it. I remember having really excitable and absurdly wide-ranging discussions about the nature of time and space...or something.
I'm not knocking the book here- far from it- I'm just saying that, like many books, this one is a pleasant blur in the memory (couldn't even tell you the plot, to be perfectly honest) and unfortunately that's all I can say about it. (less)
Really, the four stars are for the title story. I have read the other ones, but I can't remember them. Granted, I read them all a long time ago but s...more Really, the four stars are for the title story. I have read the other ones, but I can't remember them. Granted, I read them all a long time ago but still...
The Yellow Wallpaper is just brilliantly written, imagined, outlined and conceived. It took a lot of grit and insight and wisdom and imagination (a deeply underrated, not to say patronized quality, if you think about it) to write this, I think.
This is quite the inspiration, all told. It still works, many many years later, and it leaves some traces of what a friend once termed "the apocalypse of I".
It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She bel...more
It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid. In June the trees were a bright dizzy green, but later the leaves darkened, and the town turned black and shrunken under the glare of the sun. At first Frankie walked around doing one thing and another. The sidewalks of the town were gray in the early morning and at night, but the noon sun put a glaze on them, so that the cement burned and glittered like glass. The sidewalks finally became too hot for Frankie's feet, and also she got herself in trouble. She was in so much secret trouble that she thought it was better to stay at home- and at home there was only Bernice Sadie Brown and John Henry West. The three of them sat at the kitchen table, saying the same things over and over, so that by August the words began to rhyme with each other and sound strange. The world seemed to die each afternoon and nothing moved any longer. At last the summer was like a green sick dream, or like a silent crazy jungle under glass. And then, on the last Friday of August, all this was changed: it was so sudden that Frankie puzzled the whole blank afternoon, and still she did not understand.
Don't you want to hear what happens next?
There's the eerily matter-of-fact sentences, periods dropping with finality. There's the rhythmic repetition of the words, slightly bending and twisting the notes (McCullers was apparently a gifted pianist, studied music at Julliard for a bit but had to withdraw for lack of funds) and getting more out of the color green than a lot of writers do in such a small space, the ominous and yet essentially lucid vagueness- so much is intimated, yet unexplained. I noticed, while typing this out just now, how many causal prepositions are switched around or omitted entirely. It's interesting how a mood and a voice is created subtly and with assurance. This is written by someone who knows what the fuck they're doing.
I loved this opening and, what's more, the attention I paid to it right off the rip was consistently rewarded, with more of the same hushed, luminous and deeply understated prose, used to devastating effect throughout the tale. Poor Francis can't entirely comprehend the longing that encompasses her world, but she can intuit it nonetheless...
It's about being little and young and female and lonely and limpid and misunderstood and alienated and having very little in the way of companionship or understanding or creative outlets or interesting futures or best-laid plans...it's quite like what Robert Johnson said of the blues- if you ain't never had 'em, hope you never will.
I hadn't read anything by McCullers before, just a rather long and deeply appreciative biographical profile in the great Oxford American magazine that stoked my interest.
This is not to suggest in the least way that McCullers writes like a double-X Holden Caulfield or is having some kind of meltdown. Nope, her narrative control and the exact placement of her sentences and specific words and images is pretty goshdarn masterful, I'd say.
This is a hunted and haunting book. I don't tend to read for plot very much (I guess I prefer movies and, to some extent, real life for that, thanks all the same) because I'd rather get the...vibe...of a story, the atmosphere, the characterizations standing out in relief from the scenery or the historical moment.
In a word, I want language harnessed around a central point or two or three...
All this goes to explain that I knew, a couple pages in, that this was definitely going to be a four-star selection from me.
The only real reason why it's not a fiver is because, as some other reviewers have commented, the ending just sort of aesthetically crumbles and sinks the overall structure and flow of the novel itself. I'd heard that this was the case (I can never resist peeking ahead to what others make of a book even if I'm halfway through; spoilers be damned!) and was ready for it, but the narrative sag was a let down anyway.
'Tis of little matter, though. McCullers has found an interested fan in me, that's for sure. I hope to pack a couple more of her titles in over the next year...world enough and tome, you know?
Well, to play us off, here's The Velvet Underground with a song that could very easily be this book's theme:
I liked it, but I read it in high school. I mean, I got that it was an allegory and all that but still, a little irrelevant to my immediate concerns...more I liked it, but I read it in high school. I mean, I got that it was an allegory and all that but still, a little irrelevant to my immediate concerns and preoccupations at that particular stage of life.
I can't believe I haven't listed this or anything yet.
O Jesus...I don't even have time now...
Ok, ok, Top Five Reasons that I'm going to review...more
I can't believe I haven't listed this or anything yet.
O Jesus...I don't even have time now...
Ok, ok, Top Five Reasons that I'm going to review this book now:
* I can't let Steve down
* This is the basis for one of the best movies of its era, a movie that pretty much everybody I've ever been friends with has seen a hundred times and can quote at will...pretty much the definition of a popular classic in anyone's book.
* The book isn't necessarily better than the movie (only shallow people don't judge by appearances) but it did set the blueprint for the whole John Cusak thespian tour-de-force that was a Reagan Baby's wonderland...Cue the boombox and earnest gaze, cue the little kid on the bike indignantly shouting WHERE'S MY TWO DOLLARS!?...
Suffice to say, I think many 25-30 year olds these days can see a lot of themselves in our amiable, unambitious Rob, and I don't even think that's necessarily a bad thing.
* It's got the perfect set up- a guy who doesn't have very much else going on in his life but his record store, the records he fills it with, his girlfriend and his goony but lovable co-worker/friends...he's a slacker, certainly, but what's so great about the rat race anyway, and he's perceptive, witty, good hearted, sensitive, and let's face it- who wouldn't want to organize his life around sitting around and listening to music?
* Music is one of the best things in life- it's always there when you need it, it's entertaining and thought-provoking, it makes you want to dance or it makes you relax and it almost always takes you someplace else...it IS the greatest of the art forms, says I, whether it's thrown down by Beethoven or Charles Mingus or Nick Drake or The Ramones...except Taylor Swift, for this reason and this reason only:
So let us also give the book the credit, it definitely knew its character and its milieu. I mean, this is pretty much the vox populi of a certain generation. It's not mine, not quite, "Rob" is actually a little older than I am, I think, and that makes a difference because for a fellow who pretty much defines himself by and through his musical tastes his range of references and preferences are a little different than my own cultural coordinates.
But this matters very little, since the point is essentially the same- music's his thing, and he's gonna go out of his way to listen to Yoko Ono, 60's soul, Johnny Cash bootlegs, The Small Faces and what-you-will all damn day...and that's a guy after mine own heart.
The interesting thing is, Rob's really more of an old-school aesthete. He's a dandy-meets-boyo, if you will. He pisses off to the pubs like a normal hip English dude in his early thirties but he's got real well-thought-out opinions on what is the best non-Rumors Fleetwood Mac record, or the more interesting lesser efforts of Stevie Wonder, has his favorite Pink Floyd B-side, maybe spends an afternoon in a debate between the relative merits of The Buzzcocks vs. Stiff Little Fingers or whether or not R.E.M's best record is from the 80's or 90's...
He's a professional appreciator! A connoisseur, naturally, and who doesn't love a guy with great taste? Who you gonna by your records from? C'mon! Why should he have to get a regular job and stop sleeping past noon and start tucking his shirt in and listen to music in the car on the way to work than have it garland his place of business all day?
Well, the truth is, he's got a girlfriend who wants to grow up with him and she's just left him flat. Well, what's a fellow to do?
I mean, one of the things that became clear to me years after reading this book...and I'm gonna go ahead and cop to it, after all I have pretty much BEEN that guy for the past oh, I dunno, decade of my life (I mean, I regularly ask people what their favorite Beatles record is during smoke breaks at work, just friends I mean, I'm not crazy, I tell you, I'm not!)...is that, in some ways, he's pretty much using his love for art and beauty as a kind of shield from the world, an excuse, a wall, a tent, a cocoon. He's not addressing the harder truths of his life and he's not willing to take a dive away from what he can consume judiciously, safely, from the sidelines.
He is, in his own way, a Kierkegaard hero. He's not quite as solitary or grim as the Melancholy Dane but he's definitely young and smart enough not want to sell out but also down-at-heel and inert enough to need to take a 'next step'.
Marriage is (as Kierkegaard, the eternal bachelor, would have it) a potential quantum leap from his own solipsistic inner world of aesthetic bliss. It's the ultimate growing-up gesture, one that forces him away from the shiny vinyl and the obscure 45's of Skip James and Duke Ellington and into actively participating in the life of another human being. Plus, there's the whole fatherhood thing...
He's kind of a perfect example of what an all-too-accurate Newsweek article unfortunately once referred to as "The Beta Male"...you know, the guy who went to college but doesn't have a real job, wears different band's shirts all the time and knows everything about the X-Files? The guy who has plenty of talent and potential but who lives in such a way as to only bring these qualities up to surface enough for others to expect more...
I would say a geek, and geek he is, but also a charming, intelligent and sensitive chap who just doesn't feel like joining the grind. Distinctions, however fine or based on taste, must be made.
The other part of it, at least to me, is that he's sort of stuck where he is and music is not only his escape but also his hidden talent. He doesn't play an instrument but he makes a pretty killer mixtape, so at least he seems to know what goes into one. It's what makes him unique, it's his mode of self-expression. What's broke, baby? Why you gotta fix it?
Hornby's not a writer I've spent much time with but from this and his really superb story, entitled "NippleJesus" (seriously, pick it up, you're gonna love it) I can definitely give him a solid nod for accuracy of characterization.
I've known several people- males, I've got to admit- who have stated explicitly for the record that the things Rob mentions about how he gets women are things that have worked for them, basically an attitude or a style that can be summed up in one neat aphorism: "I don't attract women because of the shadows I have, I attract women because of the shadows I don't have." Boom.
Just like that- he's not some jerk who combs his hair back and sucks his cheeks in trying to look like James Dean, he's more apt to make people feel comfortable and open and actually appreciated- plus, a little aesthetic enthusiasm doesn't hurt, either...I mean, passion is passion, and how many people really have it?
See, I think that's part of it. I do believe that you can grow and evolve as a person the more books you read and the more movies you watch and the more music you listen to...
I mean, it's human nature to adjust and be enriched by all that you take in, the experiences that you have even if you never leave your quiet suburban town or whatever. As the narrator in an otherwise forgettable Walker Percy novel once put it, you listen to Beethoven and drink some scotch and you'll let ten years go by and not even notice. Or, as I've once heard about a character in Wuthering Heights, one can read so much that the books pile up to the point when they blot out the window.
But here's the rub, which is not exactly where I think Hornsby wanted to go with this, but still- Rob is just fundamentally not in the situation or circumstances that he's best suited for. He's not in his element- not quite- despite the fact that he's missing some steps on the Maslow scale he is, in pretty limited but sufficient way, happy. He's got his music.
I think this is why, ultimately, the novel is a good one. It really doesn't set its narrative or dramatic sights too high. We get a character who represents a certain point in most of our lives and how we deal with it and where we go with it is sort of a story for another time, or at least another book.
It's interesting, comparing the character in the book to the John Cusak interpretation of him. In the book I'd say he's less misanthropic and more withdrawn. Less of a sarcastic, lazy snob and more of a decent bloke you'd easily go drinking with, the better to geek out and compare notes on the various pop culture ephemera which, let's face it, comprises quite a bit more of our lives than we might like to think. In the movie you get the humanity but you also get the sense that the character's a little more self-centered and solipsistic than meets the eye.
I can forgive him this, though, and here's (basically) why:
Your record collection (or whatever it is you collect, for that matter) is a scrapbook of your life. Susan Sontag said her library was an archive of longings, I'd say it's that certainly but it's more like an archive of time, of memory.
You tend to remember where you were and what you were doing when you read or saw or heard "X" and having that is half the fun. I'm not exclusively talking about location but also more in terms of life experiences and your own mental and emotional history. You can share that, you're good. The recently departed Roger Ebert (RIP!) once said that you should not marry anyone who doesn't love the movies that you love. Sooner or later, quoth the happily married Ebert, that person will not love you. Huh.
I think that's sort of one of the things that annoyed me a little about the plot of both the book and the movie. Rob's girlfriend (I believe her name was 'Claire'?) seemed a little less interesting because she was less, shall we say, interested than he was. She seemed to treat his obsession with his records as a kind of amiable past time, over in the corner playing with his toys, if you will. As any geek will readily attest, this is only part of the problem.
She's not a harpy or anything but it would have been interesting to see her divulge more of her tastes and opinions. Hornsby doesn't make her a caricature, he's fair to her, it's just that since we spend so much time with Rob and his pocked copy of Abbey Road it would be interesting to get more of her inner library.
The girlfriend character in the film was a little under-developed in this way, too, as I recall. Although there's just something awesome in the way she says "I knew there was a reason I wore a skirt today" when she's in the car with Rob after her father's funeral...Not trying to be pervy here, if you remember the moment, you know what I mean...
So yeah, in the end our hero comes the long way round to become a man in full.
Does he put aside childish things? Maybe.
But maybe he just stops using them in a childlike way....