George MacDonald Fraser wrote the excellent introduction to this edition of the collected Brigadier Gerard stories, in which he observed what a differ...moreGeorge MacDonald Fraser wrote the excellent introduction to this edition of the collected Brigadier Gerard stories, in which he observed what a different sort of character is Gerard from Conan Doyle’s more famous creation, who need not be named. Gerard is French, not English; an interesting choice for a good Victorian imperialist such as Conan Doyle. And Gerard’s stories are set earlier; the conceit is that he is an old man telling tales about his time as a Hussar in Napoleon’s army. Gerard is as arrogant as literary “brother”, but sweeter as well, chivalrous, loyal, romantic, brave and incredibly, comically dense.
Gerard’s obliviousness is one of the primary charms of the character and chief amusements of these collected stories. He constantly mistakes the derision of others for approbation. Anything that does not conform with his own high opinion of himself gets contorted by his perception so that he remains the hero, not just of his own, but of everyone’s story.
[SPOILER ALERT] In one hilarious instance, Gerard is meant to be performing undercover recognizance and ends up participating merrily in a fox hunt with English soldiers. He gets so carried away with the pursuit that he speeds ahead of everyone, even the dogs, and slices the fox in two with his sword. Gerard clearly misunderstands the whole endeavor and imagines he has “won” the hunt. Moreover, when he sees the English soldiers erupt in histrionic shouting, he perceives this as enthusiastic congratulations instead of the enraged decrying it was.
This, incidentally, was probably my very favorite moment in the entire set of stories. As he outpaces the dogs, feeling quite self-congratulatory indeed, he shouts at the fox: “Aha, we have you now then, assassin!” He has so completely given himself to the hunt that he has forgotten his recognizance mission (only for the moment) and single-mindedly focused on his new “foe” whom he is about to dispatch tidily. And that is quite characteristic of Gerard. Comically myopic, absurdly confident of his every move, of his own rightness, and – for all his ridiculousness - actually quite a good soldier and sport. He is dog-like, in the best sense of that comparison. You like Gerard even while you laugh at him. And you can always trust him to be himself.
I am not much for adventure stories, generally preferring a good mystery, but the Brigadier Gerard stories are vividly detailed and very very funny. I am also growing increasingly interested in the Napoleonic era as a predecessor to the “world” conflicts at the beginning of the 20th century, and it is intriguing to read an Englishman’s sympathetic take on a Frenchman during this period. In any event, these stories deserve to be better known than they are. And, for my money and time, I’d much rather spend an afternoon hanging out with Gerard than with that other fellow concocted Conan Doyle. (less)
At some point I hope to write something more contemplative about this problematic book, but for right now I will make a simple observation. I found th...moreAt some point I hope to write something more contemplative about this problematic book, but for right now I will make a simple observation. I found this novel atrociously written and yet I intend to read the second installment. Take that for what it's worth.(less)
Published in 1947, Greener Than You Think is still an engaging, funny read. The protagonist and narrator, Albert Weiner, is one of science fiction's m...morePublished in 1947, Greener Than You Think is still an engaging, funny read. The protagonist and narrator, Albert Weiner, is one of science fiction's most delightful and dastardly villains, and he is all the more so because he seems genuinely blind to his own villainy. The scenario - scientifically-altered bermuda grass run amok - is comical, but as the plot develops apocalyptically, it is also weird and disturbing. This book provides a bunch of laughs and some commentary on modern American priorities and attitudes that are peculiarly still timely. (less)
**spoiler alert** Bureaucracy, broadly-speaking, has become associated with illogically rigid adherence to procedure (a.k.a. red tape) and for jealous...more**spoiler alert** Bureaucracy, broadly-speaking, has become associated with illogically rigid adherence to procedure (a.k.a. red tape) and for jealously guarding purview over the tasks it exists to perform, even at the expense of performing those tasks well. Among bureaucracies, few are more famous (and alternately infamous) than those at work in the German state. Germany and its institutions have long had a reputation for order and efficiency. Yet there emerge dark and ridiculous ramifications from too literally and too closely following the rules that lead to orderliness. When following rules gets elevated from a method to a goal, order and efficiency disappear. English-language readers may immediately think of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 as an exploration of this bureaucratic dark side. Among German authors, with many examples to choose from, few so successfully and repeatedly satirized bureaucratic behavior as did Heinrich Böll.
Böll is usually considered part of Germany's post-war literature (Nachkriegsliteratur); a literary movement that sought to reclaim and rebuild German literary language in the wake of its co-option as a vehicle for ideology by the National Socialists (Nazis). Germany's post-war authors examined, among other themes, how average German citizens did or did not come to terms with their nation's recent past and their own roles during the war, how they dealt with their loss of "home" occasioned by the vast destruction of so many German cities, and with their increasing isolation as individuals. Böll also dealt with these topics in his wry and understated way, lending humor to seemingly humorless situations while displaying an acute sense of the absurd. In his work he often ridiculed bureaucracy and its representatives, whether in the church, government, justice system, industry or, as with Heller, the military. Böll specifically derided self-important bureaucrats and the way they represented recent transformations in post-war German society, such as the Economic Miracle (Wirtschaftswunder) of the 1950s, a boom period for that nation's economy in which many Germans optimistically immersed themselves, albeit understandably, to avoid grappling with the pain of their recent past not to mention their active or passive roles in the Nazi regime.
Böll's novel, Ende einer Dienstfahrt (End of a Mission)*, appeared in 1966 and so falls toward the tail end of Nachkriegsliteratur. Nevertheless, it handles many similar themes, especially the satirization of bureaucracy-run-rampant. In this case, the bureaucracy of the military receives particular attention, although government at all levels and the justice system also figure in the story.
The plot turns upon a single act of destruction by a father and son, respectively Johann and Georg Gruhl. On a rural road outside of the small town, Birglar, the Gruhls set fire to a military vehicle under charge to Georg and joyfully watched it burn, singing, smoking their pipes and knocking them together to the rhythm of Ora pro nobis, the image of triumph and satisfaction in a job well done. In addition to destruction of army property, the Gruhls' fire caused a traffic jam of some 65 vehicles or about 100 people as estimated by one witness, Heuser, himself a self-important bureaucrat with the unlikely title Regional Traffic Agent ("Kreisverkehrsbevollmächtigte"). The traffic jam, Heuser tells the court in useless detail, caused several accidents: one, between an Opel and a rig hauling pipe in which several pipes smashed the smaller vehicle; a second, between a bicycle and a new Citroën left the new car badly scratched; yet another, between a small car ("Kleinwagen") and a Mercedes 300 SL resulted in a fist fight. The drivers of a beer truck and a cement truck, waiting for the road to clear, became fast friends and engaged in some mutually beneficial bit of business. Unprepared to testify precisely what trade the men transacted, Heuser ventures to note the beer truck driver had a newly laid cement driveway two days later.
In short, the fire caused a great commotion in Birglar, occasioned no little property damage, direct or indirect, and generally impressed the citizens of that small town (at least the ones stuck on the road) as an important and exceptional event. Moreover, based on witness testimony and the Gruhls' own admission, they set the fire purposefully and thoroughly enjoyed watching their handiwork.
The meat of the novel details the single day of court proceedings against the Gruhls in Birglar's tiny courthouse. From the outset, we understand that one of the tacit forces influencing the proceedings is "die nahe gelegene Großstadt," Birglar's neighboring Big City, which remains unnamed and in which a sensational murder case is also scheduled to begin. The amorphously-referred-to "Staatsmacht" (state power) has determined that the Gruhls' trial will be held in Birglar rather than in the Big City and that the Gruhls will receive the lesser charge of malicious damage and gross mischief ("Sachbeschädigung und groben Unfug") rather than arson ("Brandstiftung").
The bureaucratic powers-that-be, from political party representatives and newspaper editors to district judges and military officers, seem bent on downplaying the importance or political and social relevance of the Gruhls' act: the army declines to prosecute and leaves the process in state hands; the venue is smalltown Birglar instead of the Big City and scheduled to coincide with the aforementioned murder trial, sure to eclipse it in public interest; the presiding judge is set to retire upon passing sentence in the Gruhls' case which presumably encourages him to usher the trial along with due haste; the only reporter in Birglar planning to cover the case is reassigned at the last moment and sent to the Big City along with all the other media. In short, every care is taken by interested bureaucratic authorities that the Gruhls' trial proceed rapidly, quietly and uneventfully to minimize possible embarrassment to anyone of consequence, namely themselves and other bureaucratic authorities.
But of what embarrassment are these authorities frightened? Why go to so much trouble to keep the trial under wraps? The answer has everything to do with the Gruhls' motive in burning the jeep, a motive the court approaches quizzically as though it were quite opaque. And yet the Gruhls' motive is evident to the reader and to Birglar's citizens. As a carpenter and fine craftsman, accustomed to business in another era, Johann's trade suffered during the industrialization of the Wirtschaftswunder. He finds himself in further financial straights when the army calls up Georg, his partner in trade, for compulsory service. Then Georg receives his titular "mission": to drive a military jeep. And that is it. To drive...no place in particular. The army has ordered Georg to drive the vehicle aimlessly so that it meets the requirements of an arbitrary bureaucratic protocol: he must raise the vehicle's odometer to a mileage in correspondence with its next scheduled inspection. The profound inanity of these orders requires no elucidation. Moreover, as Georg testifies, he has performed this duty many times before and witnessed the waste of his time, the government's money and natural resources (gas and oil) occasioned by such a ludicrous task. The idiocy of Georg's orders further disgusts him as his service renders him incapable of helping his father. Refusing to complete this "mission" and setting fire to the jeep, with Johann readily assisting, is clearly an act of disdain for the army's nonsensical orders and rejection of its over-literal bureaucratic authority.
The military wants to keep the incident quiet presumably so its wastefulness receives no attention and so it does not earn a negative public image for tearing family life asunder. Other authorities possess their own competing, but equally self-serving, reasons. For example, the local delegate from a liberal political party harkens back to a previous trial in which his party, along with the local media outlet nestled squarely in its pocket, attempted to create a martyr for freedom ("einen Märtyrer der Freiheit") out of a defendant who proved himself merely a braggart and an imposter. The reader never learns this would-be martyr's alleged crime, but we do discover the lengths the party and the newspaper went to in order to vaunt the man and publicize his trial, create a hero of him, and how proportionally mortifying they found it when he turned out a fraud. In short, justice and due process fall absolutely secondary to the official interests of bureaucracy and authority.
Because the Gruhls admit their guilt, their trial concerns justification, motive and appropriate punishment more than guilt or innocence. It experiences a number of delays primarily owing to preoccupation with various forms of bureaucratic minutiae: the court officials become concerned with how to spell certain words for the record, how to translate colloquialisms used by various witnesses, how to characterize the crime and the demeanor of the accused; semantic issues all that have no real bearing on the outcome of the trial. Various witnesses seem more fascinated by the intricacies of their own bureaucratic situations than interested in answering counsels' questions, taking the court on detours through the ins-and-outs of their own jobs, the hoops through which they must jump, or make others jump on a daily basis.
As the trial proceeds, the march of witnesses and their testimony also demonstrate the intertwined relationships of all of Birglar's citizens. Nearly everyone called to testify, whether they saw the event or not, knows the accused and has an opinion about their crime and state of mind. Most find the Gruhls sympathetic and justified. Johann and Georg appear well-liked and their act of "malicious damage" viewed with some comprehension and indulgence. Witnesses called include military officers and enlisted men, Birglar's police chief, former patrons of the Gruhls' carpentry, local business owners, a priest and an economic theorist. Old enmities and affinities among the citizenry, differences in religious or political affiliation, emerge. All of these individuals share the commonality that, in their varied ways, they represent relationships to the authorities running their city and its bureaucracies which they all either work in, cater to, merely suffer or, like the Gruhls' actively defy.
The denouement of the trial begins when one Professor Büren is called to testify. The professor asserts that the Gruhls' act of burning the jeep constitutes an artwork, a "Happening" (but spelled with an 'ä' or merely an 'a' wonder the court officials?), by which he means a piece of performance art. According to Büren, the Gruhls' destruction of the jeep...
...was even an extraordinary act that demonstrated five dimensions: the dimension of architecture, of sculpture, of literature, of music - for it had distinct concerto-like moments - and finally dance-like elements, as he [Büren] considered, which found expression in the way they knocked their pipes together.
"...sei sogar eine außerordentliche Tat, da es fünf Dimensionen aufweise: die Dimension der Architektur, der Plastik, der Literatur, der Musik - denn es habe ausgesprochen konzertante Momente gehabt - und schließlich tänzerische Elemente, wie sie seiner Erachtens im Gegeneinanderschlagen der Tabakpfeifen zum Ausdruck gekommen seien." (131)
An uproarious scene follows Büren's profoundly silly, if sincere testimony. The prosecuting State's attorney Kugl-Egger receives the professor's revelation by declaring that the powers-that-be elsewhere ("andernorts" which we understand euphemistically as the Big City) have fooled him, have forced him into a position of irresponsibility and that he must abdicate his office. He realizes, so belatedly it is comic, that he was not meant to prevail against the Gruhls and this was not meant to be a serious trial. The tumult increases as Kugl-Egger suffers a near heart attack and must be temporarily removed from the court.
We all realize that this political theater, orchestrated by the authorities in "andernorts" and so faithfully executed - whether they knew it or not - by the petty bureaucrats in Birglar, has been successful as Judge Stollfuss sentences the Gruhls only to time served and declares their act, indeed, to have been a work of art. He contentedly lays aside his gavel for the last time and everyone seems to have won (with the exception, I suppose, of poor Kugl-Egger and the army who is down one unrecompensed jeep).
This reader was pleased that the Gruhls got off easy but recognizes the victory, as I think Böll intends, as a fleeting and accidental one, lasting only until they have another inevitable run-in with nonsensical, indomitable, eternal red tape.
*All German quotations are from Heinrich Böll, Ende einer Dienstfahrt (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co. KG: München) 1973. All English translations are my own.(less)
In 1677, the magnum opus of Baruch de Spinoza (or Benedictus, in Latin), his Ethics, was published posthumously. Many of Spinoza's works only appeared...moreIn 1677, the magnum opus of Baruch de Spinoza (or Benedictus, in Latin), his Ethics, was published posthumously. Many of Spinoza's works only appeared in print after his death due to the then contentious and radical nature of his thought. Spinoza envisioned "God" as equatable with "nature," rather than as a personified deity attending human activity. He rejected Descartes' soul-body dualism and the idea of free will. The following quotation comes from G. H. R. Parkinson's 1989 translation of Ethics:
"Human lack of power in moderating and checking the emotions I call servitude. For a man who is submissive to his emotions does not have power over himself, but is in the hands of fortune to such an extent that he is often constrained, although he may see what is better for him, to follow what is worse."
This passage prefaces Part IV of Ethics, "Of Human Servitude" or, according to R. H. M. Elwes' 1883 translation, "Of Human Bondage." W. Somerset Maugham borrowed this title for his novel, often considered his own magnum opus, from this section of Spinoza's work (likely from Elwes' very translation). Maugham's adaptation of Spinoza's title is both apt for the substance of Maugham's novel and an appropriate demonstration of the textual composition of the personality and thought of a bookworm and introvert like Maugham and, in turn, like Maugham's semi-autobiographical protagonist in the story, Philip Carey.
This expansive novel adopts Spinoza's meaning for its own. Of Human Bondage chronicles the life of Philip Carey. It begins with his mother's death at the age of 9 and ends at a less materially dramatic, but emotionally potent moment when he is nearly 30. Throughout the novel the theme of bondage or servitude to one's emotions surfaces and resurfaces. Burdened with a club foot and orphaned so young, Carey is tormented by his peers and, without the emotional stability of family which might have mediated his school experiences, he remains practically friendless. He responds to the challenges of his youth by becoming an introvert (or, perhaps, experienced such challenges as he did largely because he was already an introvert) and develops an unslakable reading habit. He conveys self-possession and stability to others, but feels his own vulnerability and changeability keenly. Frequently Carey, like all of us, behaves as his own worst enemy, dissembling when he ought to tell the truth or eschewing affectionate human attention when he craves it madly. And, like all of us, his reasons for behaving in these ways appear mysterious to him. He is, as Spinoza observes, not in control of himself.
As he ages, certain relationships in Carey's life demonstrate this helplessness, this failure of reason to guide emotion, more obviously than others. But the entire work seems to me a meditation on this central problem. Carey, like Maugham, is drawn to philosophy and spends considerable energy trying to alight on life's meaning, on a philosophy to live by, on a way of viewing the world that resonates with him as true. Through a disastrous relationship, a period of extreme poverty, inane or deep friendships, and various professional experiences, Carey slowly arrives at his meaning: that searching for a rationale to live by is pointless when one's emotions will always overrule reason. He decides, ultimately, that there is no meaning. Carey, as a spiritually-inclined, aesthetic and pensive atheist, experiences this revelation as an overwhelming positive. With no meaning, no god, no point, he is free to make his life, or let it develop, in its own unique pattern. Happiness and suffering are no longer things to strive for or avoid. Like emotions that rise from a shadowy place independent of our reasoning, like disease or death or love or beauty, they simply are. (less)
This is a very uneven collection put together by an editor who name-drops and thinks far too much of himself. Al Sarrantonio certainly gathered some s...moreThis is a very uneven collection put together by an editor who name-drops and thinks far too much of himself. Al Sarrantonio certainly gathered some solid works by some major authors here: Joyce Carol Oates, William Peter Blatty, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, et al. But he asserts the pretense of creating a forward-looking collection for the coming century (this collection was published in 1999). If one is trying to anticipate the future, I think it's generally well-advised to choose young authors who are risking something instead of seasoned professionals who have been at the job successfully for decades. Another mistake Sarrantonio made, according to my taste anyway, was to write short self-important introductions to each story. In an introduction, the reader wants to know about the author and the story she's about to read. The editor should not write here in the first person. The editor is not the star or crux of interest - the author is, the story is. But Sarrantonio cannot resist telling us how or when he met this or that author. His desire to place himself in the literary company of the authors in 999, to appear on their tier, is self-indulgent and offers very little to the reader. This becomes especially clear after reading Sarrantonio's own contribution to the collection, "The Ropy Thing", an unoriginal and poorly imagined fable replete with an insipid little boy protagonist who lacks agency and an Eve/Lolita/Succubus/Temptress little girl villain whose betrayal you see coming from a mile away.
So I would recommend skipping Sarrantonio's writing, both editorial and creative, in this volume. I would also completely skip F. Paul Wilson's "Good Friday", one of the most hackneyed vampire stories I've read in the last 15 years. Most of the other stories have at least points to recommend them. Few are fantastic from beginning to end. Neil Gaiman's "Keepsakes and Treasures: A Love Story" is intriguing, but ends so abruptly it seems like Gaiman ran out of time or interest and just stopped after an arbitrary last sentence. Blatty's "Elsewhere" also starts strong, but he clubs the reader over the head with over-explanation, which completely derails the tension he had carefully built up to that point, much like explaining a joke divorces it from its humor content.
The stories I enjoyed the most are: Kim Newman's "Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue", a demented, post-apocalyptic, alternate-history-sort-of take on a zombie tale, which has a dead-pan narrator and a bizarre ending I liked quite well; Oates' "The Ruins of Contracouer", which makes up for in spooky atmosphere what it lacks in cogency (but I'd rather be left guessing at the meaning of something than be whacked over the head with it); "The Owl and the Pussycat" by Thomas M. Disch, which is perhaps the most cleverly rendered story of the whole collection; Nancy A. Collins' "Catfish Gal Blues", a humorous and startling monster tale; "Rio Grande Gothic" by David Morrell, an entertaining adventure/horror story with a great setting on its side; Michael Marshall Smith's "The Book of Irrational Numbers", an inside-the-serial-killer's-head story that manages to give you something fresh in a frequently-trodden subgenre of horror lit; and, finally, "Mad Dog Summer" by Joe R. Lansdale, which I think easily has the most heart of any of the collection's stories - it reminded me perhaps a bit too much of To Kill a Mockingbird, but if Lansdale did have any sort of imitation on his mind, he at least executed it well.
Sarrantonio certainly did not chart a new paradigm for short horror fiction in the next millennium with 999, but some of the stories are worth a read. (less)
I subscribe to reader-response theory. Personal experience as a reader has made convincing the premise that a static set of words placed together in a...moreI subscribe to reader-response theory. Personal experience as a reader has made convincing the premise that a static set of words placed together in a certain order can mean different things to different people (or to the same person) at different times. That is, the reader participates in a reading experience at least as much as the author and in a more generative, malleable way. Because I buy reader-response theory and because I read a lot, while reading I often consider my own role in the experience I am having - especially if that experience is mediocre.
Some time ago I began Stephen King's Dark Tower series. I had an ambivalent attitude toward Stephen King that I discussed at length in my Goodreads review of The Gunslinger, the first book in this series. I am now working my way through the fourth book, The Wizard and the Glass, and where The Gunslinger was a compelling breeze to get through, this one feels like work. I have spent no small amount of time trying to figure out why.
I dig the protagonist of the entire saga, Roland of Gilead a/k/a the Gunslinger. Part Clint Eastwood à la High Plains Drifter and part in-the-grips-of-ring-madness Frodo, Roland can seem sympathetic yet unlikable, he is both trustworthy and suspect. He serves a greater quest more than he serves himself and this makes him ultimately volatile, despite his seeming reliability. Having reached this point in the series, I have followed Roland over thousands of miles, through different worlds and times, I have seen him collect a group of friends about himself who know no more about him than I do - his friends feel the same things I, the reader, feel: trust in Roland's ability and fear of his obsessive purpose.
Given all of this, The Wizard and the Glass should offer a huge emotional payoff. To begin with, the first hundred pages or so resolve the cliffhanger ending of the third book, The Waste Lands. Then it moves on to an extended flashback, occupying the majority of the novel, in which Roland finally reveals to his friends the events out of which originated his single-minded goal. Through this flashback, we get to see Roland at fourteen or fifteen, before his life's purpose has become usurped by his quest for the Dark Tower. We meet a Roland who possesses the youthful sense of possibility in his own future - a potentially glad future as opposed to the one with which he ends up, filled with peril, endless searching and the knowledge that he may have to sacrifice his owns friends to achieve his goal.
In this flashback we get to witness the origins of the series plot line and we also recognize in young Roland the seed that circumstances would twist into the man he becomes. I usually adore this kind of back story, particularly when it involves characters and stories with which one has had the time to become well-acquainted and in which one has grown invested. So what's my problem? Why have I had to force myself to finish this thing?
I distribute the blame equally among myself and Mr. King. As to my own role in a mediocre reading experience - I think I did not take into account the arc of a saga, as opposed to a discrete novel. Sequels and sequels of sequels are different animals from the singular novel-length story. When you spread a story out over this many pages, you no longer get the same set-up, build-up, denouement, and resolution in each book that you may expect from a stand-alone novel. These books, as long as they are, should be considered as chapters or episodes.
King took his time with the flashback at the heart of The Wizard and the Glass - he introduces his readers to an entirely new set of characters, a new geography, a new telos. He was right to, but I have grown impatient with it. I want gnarled and world-weary Roland back. I want his crew of motley friends back; his former-heroin-addict, multiple-personality-having-amputee, died-twice-time-travelling friends, of different ages, genders and colors. I am tired of the teenaged-boy story.
But most of all (and here's where I criticize the author), I am tired of teenaged-Roland's love interest, Susan Delgado. I think this disappoints me most because, by and large, I do not take issue with Stephen King's characterizations of women. He writes them in all shapes, sizes and temperaments, as protagonists, villains, heroes, and victims. They are no more or less stereotypical than his male characters - that is, their personalities usually revolve around a core of distinctness that only periodically veers into stereotyping. Moreover, he characterizes Susan as a competent, smart and daring young woman. So what's my beef?
Something about Susan's age has stymied King's ability to avoid veering toward, and eventually dwelling in, the most cloying stereotype of teenaged girls. I grant that, at some point or another, all teenaged girls giggle -- but a girl in the pickle in which Susan finds herself, a girl who has lost what she's lost, who faces the danger she faces and possesses the fortitude she does -- I just do not buy that at surreptitious midnight meetings in graveyards, this girl would be uncontrollably moved to giggles. This seems a small thing, but it represents a more general direction in which her character moves as the novel progresses. As she falls in love with Roland, she steadily cedes more and more responsibility to him. Roland falls too, and we see the consequences of his forgetting himself - he cedes some control to Susan as well - but she's the one who asks him to take care of her.
There are arguments of which I have already thought pertaining to how very young things truly do tend to fall in love - completely and unyieldingly - and how the gender mores of the pseudo-western world King has crafted requires Susan's reliance on Roland-as-savior. Perhaps I am simply not a part of the textual community for whom King writes (although I don't actually believe that for a second). Nevertheless, I see something more annoying and less plot-related in King's steady dismantling of Susan's gumption.
I hesitate to get personal on Stephen King, but I will anyway. Despite the fantasies of middle-aged men, who seem to view very young women as blank canvases upon which their egos can inscribe themselves, most teenaged girls lead very complex interior lives. And King established Susan as just such a complex character, so it is exceedingly disappointing when she slowly becomes one of these blank canvases upon which King (via Roland) can project his idea of feminine youth itself, instead of his idea of one specific young woman.
Girlhood, as King idealizes it, giggles and so of course this girl would do so, at the drop of a hat, no matter what's going on in the story or with her character. As a former teenaged girl, I can attest that they also smirk and guffaw and seethe quietly and, while I'm at it, they do not all have enticingly long, blond hair and a thing for horses. Additionally, I will throw in a quote for pure substantiation's sake. Susan has blurted out some unexpected information that she has every reason to know and to remember she knows. When questioned about it by Roland and his friends, she responds without sarcasm: "I don't know what I'm talking about. Brainless as Pinch and Jilly, I am..." (Signet 2003 paperback, page 453) Even though King has taken other pains to make sure we think of Susan as intelligent, she is not supposed to think herself so...or at least she is not supposed to show herself so and certainly not in the company of boys her age. Is that what I am to take from Susan's inane ejaculation?
So I guess the crux of my annoyance is this: Roland of Gilead is a compelling character, so why is his first love something out of a bad romance novel? Strong-willed, but ultimately pliant. Baby-wanting at 15. Independent enough to seem challenging but, in the end, a clinging vine. Beautiful in the least interesting and over-represented way imaginable (sorry, tall slender blonds with boobs). Smart, but not too smart and never smarter than Roland. *long disappointed sigh*
But! And there is a but - The Wizard and the Glass has some outstanding villains in it, especially Eldred Jonas. And one of my favorite characters, the onetime ne'er-do-well, turned gunslinger Eddie, gets a satisfying moment of glory toward the book's beginning. I have yet to see what the end has in store, but I had to go ahead and write this entry because unless Susan dies, and soon, I have no idea how long it will take me to get there.(less)
I devoured this slender, terrifying novel in a couple of days. It compels you to continue, so much do you want to finish it - both so you will find ou...moreI devoured this slender, terrifying novel in a couple of days. It compels you to continue, so much do you want to finish it - both so you will find out how it ends and so you will be able to leave it behind. But, of course, you can't because the plot is too frightening, the villain too despicable, the heroine too sympathetic and Fowles' prose too good.
I will refrain from including a synopsis, which can be found in dozens of places online. If you have not already managed to hear too much about this classic, I would recommend not even reading the dust jacket. Just open it and begin. Prepare yourself for an emotionally wrenching ride, but do not muddle your experience with preconceived notions about what a book with The Collector's plotline should be like. Just read it.
Instead of dwelling on plot, I will make a few observations about Fowles' narrative style, which is expert. The novel contains two first person narrative voices, both English, one of a working class man in his late 20s, the other of a bourgeois 19- or 20-year-old woman who has more or less rejected her bourgeois upbringing. At the time The Collector was published in 1963 (and it was written only a year or so beforehand), Fowles himself was an academic with prep school and Oxford training in his late 30s. Naturally, it is an author's vocation to successfully mimic the narrative voices and interior monogues of people he or she is not. Like actors, they don different personalities in order to compel their audience (readers) to feel things for and about people who do not exist.
I cannot speak with any authority on the success or lack thereof with which female authors tend to write male characters. However, as an avid lifelong reader and as a woman, I have to admit that male authors only rarely write convincing female characters in the first person. Fowles is one of those rarities. His character, Miranda, thrums with life. She bears all of the complexity and fire of a young individual restlessly moving from the values she inherited from her family to those she has found or crafted for herself. Her ambitions, contradictions and confusion seem utterly real. I liked her enormously, which only helped Fowles to work his horrible author's magic on me. His sublime magic.
Inherited issues of class pulse at the heart of Miranda's feelings about her world and herself. As with many British cultural products of the 1960s, from literature to music to Monty Python, The Collector comments frequently on class divisions in English society; the snobbish conformity of upper classes and the disaffected, hopeless apathy of working classes. I still have not decided how central or peripheral to consider this aspect of Fowles' novel. Although The Collector certainly works at much more than criticizing socioeconomic issues of its day, the tension between haves and have-nots seems to fuel the psychological conflict at the heart of the story. Both protagonists' thoughts (narratives) deal much with issues of class and each of them views the other as an extreme representative of a given class.
At this point, I feel as though I ought to say something about the other protagonist's narrative. However, Fowles has already given him such life, I feel almost superstitious about it. If I talk about him too much, he will be real. Perhaps the knowledge that Fowles has left me with this sensation of shrinking but quiet dread speaks more eloquently about this character than I ever could. I will leave it at that. (less)
Nevil Shute wrote On the Beach over 50 years ago, precisely during the heyday of the Cold War's nuclear arms race. A brilliant example of counterprodu...moreNevil Shute wrote On the Beach over 50 years ago, precisely during the heyday of the Cold War's nuclear arms race. A brilliant example of counterproductive thinking that would influence such near disasters as the Bay of Pigs invasion, not to mention the release of innumerable films and novels dealing literally and metaphorically with human kind's ability to wipe itself off the face of the earth.
On the Beach, as novel and film, differs from works like the brilliant novel, A Canticle for Liebowitz, for instance, in that Shute did not choose the relative safety (or creative freedom) of rooting his meditation on nuclear holocaust within the science fiction genre. Shute chose the heartbreaking and alarmingly mundane real world for his backdrop. Another difference between On the Beach and so many other fictive post-apocalyptic nightmares is that the action of the story concerns neither the grand conflagration that ends in human extinction nor the way humankind slowly, painfully recovers after a nuclear holocaust. Instead, the plot explores what, given said holocaust, human extinction would feel like.
Shute focuses on the year or so after the northern hemisphere has annihilated itself through nuclear war. The resulting cloud of radioactivity slowly, relentlessly creeps south, promising to eventually wipe out all animal life on the planet. The story occurs in Melbourne, Australia, one of the last large cities to contain life, and it centers around a small group of people: an American submarine captain whose family back home must already have died, an Australian naval officer with a young wife and a new baby daughter, a spirited young Australian woman who dreamed big dreams and now mourns the loss of her future.
As tales of post-apocalyptic horror go, On the Beach seems extremely quiet. Of course, therein lies its power and resonance. Dialogue and character, rather than action, drive the plot, for the defining action of the piece has occurred before the novel begins. The bombs have dropped, the combatant nations have exterminated themselves. Now the human beings left alive in the southern hemisphere have only to wait. The story concerns normal human life and the psychology of average people waiting for a guaranteed untimely death; moreover, for a death that will signal the probable end of all human life on earth.
As Shute imagines it, and I tend to agree with him, people quietly go on being people. Some anesthetize themselves with drink and wait pathetically for the radioactive cloud to arrive with its sickness. Some take up dangerous hobbies and pursue them with abandon, perhaps hoping they go out on their own terms before the sickness overtakes them, and likely also managing to feel truly alive before they die. Others, the great majority, simply go on. Not naively, as though assured death were not approaching, but determinedly because what else is one supposed to do? They plant gardens the issue from which they will never eat. They take courses to prepare themselves for careers they will never pursue. They go out to lunch and shop. They take fishing trips and throw parties. They live until they die.(less)
I was unfortunate enough to have been introduced to Wide Sargasso Sea by watching the 1993 film version. In the intervening 17 years, I have forgotten...moreI was unfortunate enough to have been introduced to Wide Sargasso Sea by watching the 1993 film version. In the intervening 17 years, I have forgotten many details and now remember only my overall impression of the film. It seemed like housewife softcore or something aired on Showtime late at night that my brother and I, in our childhoods, would have giggled over. Lots of moist skin, dresses perpetually falling off shoulders, trite filmmakers trying desperately to make 1830s Jamaica as exotic and sexy as possible. With my recent reading of Jean Rhys' 1966 novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, upon which this film was based (I use "based" loosely), I have at last realized what an injustice was done to Ms. Rhys and her book. (And an aside 'thank you' to my friend Drue who made this all possible by lending me the book!)
Wide Sargasso Sea is a "parallel novel" - a novel using characters or plotlines from another work, written by a different author. In this case, Jean Rhys annexes Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in order to refigure the villain of that piece, Bertha Antoinetta Mason, Rochester's insane, dangerous and dissolute wife. Rhys provides this pathetic and loathsome shadow figure from Jane Eyre with a sympathetic back story that, in the process, rewrites our understanding of Rochester and the plot of Jane Eyre itself.
Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Antoinette Mason, a white creole (a Jamaican-born member of the slaveholding class) who grew up in 1830s Jamaica, just after the dissolution of slavery in the West Indies. The action of the book occurs mainly in the West Indies and is told through first person narration: that of Antoinette herself and of Edward Rochester. Rhys changes few of the details offered by Brontë - Rochester ventures to the West Indies, is taken ill and, before he knows it, finds himself married to Antoinette in a union largely engineered by Antoinette's step-brother and Rochester's father.
Initially enthralled with the young woman, Rochester quickly begins to harbor suspicion and dread of his new wife. He hears malicious rumors about the so-called madness of Antoinette's mother and of her young brother, who died years earlier when the family's home was destroyed by fire. Additionally, the "exotic" quality (for an Englishman) of Jamaica and of Antoinette begins to discomfort Rochester, as does her attachment to Christophine, her childhood nurse and practitioner of obeah. For Rochester, all of the West Indies seem to harbor some dark "secret"; something unnamed, but dangerous and duplicitous, that he associates with Jamaica, Christophine, Antoinette's servants and, soon, with Antoinette herself.
Rochester's feelings of alienation from Jamaica and its inhabitants, including his new wife, coupled with the gossip he has heard about her family, contribute to Rochester's ultimate conviction that he is the victim of a malicious plot and that he has married a mad woman who wants only his money. For Antoinette's part, the "madness" of her mother seems less some inheritable insanity and more a result of grief over her son's death in the fire, as well as an offshoot of her unwillingness to fit the mold her two husbands (Antoinette's father and step-father) had fashioned for her. This both prefigures Antoinette's own end as a lunatic imprisoned in Rochester's English home and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for Rochester. Antoinette's behavior is culturally unreadable to Rochester, who attributes insanity to it. He believes that madness runs in her family, and his own subsequent treatment of Antoinette soon drives her, in fact, mad, turning her into the gibbering, murderous "Bertha"* from Jane Eyre.
Essentially, throughout the novel, Rhys demonstrates how Rochester's presumed cultural superiority and attendant prejudice against West Indian culture instills in him a kind of paranoia that ultimately destroys Antoinette. By fleshing out Antoinette's story and by portraying Rochester in his attitude of cultural superiority and resulting paranoia, Rhys creates a sympathetic, though not uncritical, depiction of Antoinette and her past that Jane Eyre completely lacks.
Any sympathy generated by Rhys for Antoinette, however, is instantly problematized given that Antoinette's family once perpetrated and flourished by slavery. The reader meets Antoinette as a young girl: slavery, the source of her family's wealth, has ended; her father has died; her mother has grown reclusive; and the resentment and distrust of black creoles and former slaves for former slaveholders, like Antoinette's family, is beginning to bubble up. The world into which Rochester enters is already fraught with its own racial and class tensions. His British imperialist sense of entitlement and superiority only add to this volatile and destructive mix.
I became so smitten with this subtle and complex book that I shamelessly exploited my boyfriend's University of New Orleans online account. I scoured JSTOR and found dozens of scholarly articles written about Rhys and Wide Sargasso Sea. Unsurprisingly, the majority of articles explore the novel within a post-colonial and feminist methodological framework. I admit to a strong preference for the post-colonial over the feminist evaluations. I may be ultimately more offended by colonial attitudes than by sexist ones, though I think the two comprise an insidious symbiotic system of prejudice that Wide Sargasso Sea explores deftly. The post-colonial articles focus on silence, voice, powerlessness and empowerment and the (in)ability of a white author, albeit a West Indian one, to truly represent that subaltern.
The spiraling and overlapping complexities of this novel beg such questions and concerns. Rhys took Jane Eyre, usually considered a sort of proto-feminist work, focused on a character marginal to that novel and created another work in which that character is both your protagonist and antagonist, both innocent and guilty, central and peripheral. I get the sense that Rhys identified with women characters who usually get short shrift in fiction - sometimes sympathetic, but usually caricatured "fallen" women, who are not all bad, but only sometimes good. Evidently her earlier novels, which I fully intend on reading, also possess such protagonists. In any event, Wide Sargasso Sea is one of the best novels I have read in some time. And I will warn everyone I know away of that wretched movie by the same name.
*One of the most overt attempts to erase Antoinette's Jamaican, "exotic" personality and submit it to his own control, is Rochester's insistence on calling her "Bertha".(less)
I came to my reading of Watchmen with pretty high expectations. I steered clear of the film until I could take in the book, having heard what an origi...moreI came to my reading of Watchmen with pretty high expectations. I steered clear of the film until I could take in the book, having heard what an original, complex and downright groovy graphic novel this is. I guess I would call Watchmen original and complex, and for that matter groovy. And yet, I didn't love it the way I wanted to love it. It did not seem immediate or very relevant. I disliked the female characters and the book's handling of gender. Every once in a while the over-earnest writing (especially for Rorschach) elicited an eye roll from me. And then it struck me Watchmen was published over 20 years ago.
I tried to cut it some slack and decided I would probably most effectively understand and appreciate the book within its context. That is, within the context of the historical moment of its publication, as well as within the context of the tradition of graphic novels and what was expected of them when Watchmen was published. Essentially, I got the feeling that so many tropes of modern superhero literature had been introduced and even created by Watchmen, that if one didn't take care to remember this, one might fall into the error of thinking it hackneyed. Like believing Shakespeare wrote in clichés, when in fact he originated language that would become, through acceptance and use, clichéd.
The main plot line of Watchmen unfolds against and becomes intertwined with the eruption of a nuclear scare between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U. S. President at the time of this occurrence (1985ish) is still Richard Nixon. We learn that he ushered through a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for more than two terms. Even though nuclear armament, and the threat of its use in an alternate historical 80s, comprise the very specific atmosphere within which the larger questions of heroism and altruism develop, these questions still resonate today. We no longer fear all out nuclear war (even though we probably should), now we fear terrorism. In any event, there still exists a phantom-like hostility out there, which leads us to gauge the balance of our safety with our freedom and to imagine heroes capable of offering us the former while protecting the latter. Perhaps because Moore envisions superheros as real personalities, because he questions vigilante justice and what would draw an individual to pursuing it, do we today portray superheros the way we do - as flawed and somewhat frightening humans who exercise power many of us wish for, many of us distrust, but few of us would truly want. Just as with contemporary superhero films, Watchmen maintains interest in both the effect of vigilante justice on the psyche of the superhero/vigilante and its effects on the public those superheroes/vigilantes purport to protect.
In addition to this theme of moral ambiguity, Watchmen achieves complexity with its interesting structure. The main narrative (and illustration, in this case) alternates both with different formats, news clippings, book excerpts, etc., and with a parallel narrative or story-within-a-story of "The Black Freighter". (Aside: The Brecht fan in me really appreciated this homage.)
Altogether a work of ambitious scope and intellectually interesting questions, I ultimately appreciated Watchmen mentally much more than I did emotionally or aesthetically. I think that for its emotional and aesthetic impact to reach me, I would have had to read it in the 80s, when it all seemed fresh. But that's my failing, I think, and not really the book's.
After the fifth story, I felt like I was reading the same story again and again...or at least stories that rehashed the same ideas over and over again...moreAfter the fifth story, I felt like I was reading the same story again and again...or at least stories that rehashed the same ideas over and over again. So even while I liked the basic story template here, I didn't finish the whole book. Perhaps sometime I will. It was repetition that stopped me. I have one additional warning to modern readers - prepare for periodic but persistent racism. Written by a white European woman in the early 20th century, who purported to have extensive experience with "eastern" thought and philosophy (in quotes because she seems to mean India, but there is much much more "east"), these stories hinge on spiritual and philosophical views that would have been fairly unusual to the ears of westerners at the time - so unusual that the word "occult" winds up in the title. Anyway, the alarmingly blatant superiority complex especially typical of white people in this time period (and in so, so many others *sigh*) sneaks into otherwise interesting stories over and over again. The specifically patriarchal and condescending British view of their relationship to India in this period surely heightened this sense, even for a woman who seems to think she was writing sympathetically of Indian culture. Instead this is rather a great illustration of Said's "orientalism" at work. Interesting as sociology, I suppose. (less)