Jimmy Corrigan must have taken Chris Ware an astounding amount of time and energy to create. Jimmy's story takes place in an intricately imagined and...moreJimmy Corrigan must have taken Chris Ware an astounding amount of time and energy to create. Jimmy's story takes place in an intricately imagined and illustrated Chicago, following two parallel narrative lines: one concerns Jimmy Corrigan, a 30+-year-old in present day Chicago and, the second occurs in the Chicago of 1893, when that city hosted a storied world's fair, and concerns a Jimmy-like child (8 or 9 years old, I'll call him Jim to differentiate) and Jim's father. These two narrative lines weave around each other interspersed with Jimmy's (and Jim's) dream ballets and bizarre nonsequiturs addressed directly to the reader.
This is, ultimately, a story about sons and fathers; about Jimmy trying to reconnect as an adult with a long absent, imperfect but well-intentioned father and about Jim, raised by an unloving malicious man who ultimately abandons him. I wanted to like this book more than I do because of the considerable amount of respect and admiration I have for the complexity of Ware's visual imagination. However, I could not make myself like Jimmy or find his woes compelling; sympathetic, sure, but not compelling. Jim's story gripped me more, primarily because he shows backbone that Jimmy completely lacks.
It is difficult to root for someone who will not help themselves and Jimmy seems almost completely paralyzed by his own timidity. His mother harangues and smothers him. His father reappears in his life after decades of silence, attempting lamely to manufacture a warmth between him and his son that he destroyed by vanishing in the first place. He is lonely and unable to connect with anyone. Jimmy has plenty to be dissatisfied with. His emotional turmoil is reasonable and understandable. Even as an adult, childhood issues can plague a person and limit them. But Jimmy's struggle to move out from underneath these issues never manifests with any force. He has no pluck and no spirit and possesses the sexual maturity of a 15-year-old. I feel unkind summing him up in this way, suspecting these characteristics should elicit more sympathy from me, not less. I characterize myself as having much empathy for the gentle and sensitive, for feeling protective of them rather than critical of them. For this reason, my reaction to Jimmy's character surprises and confuses me, but I found him annoying and uninteresting. But there it is. I didn't like Jimmy and didn't think he tried hard enough, which makes the emotional pain he suffers appear to some extent like his own fault.
Jim, on the other hand, seems faced with a nastier situation. He is a small boy. His mother is dead. His father alternates between distant and belligerent. But these circumstances do not crush Jim or intimidate him to the point of paralysis. They do, however, create a more jaded human being. When we learn how Jim and Jimmy's stories intersect (namely, who exactly is Jim to Jimmy), we do see how Jim's unhappy upbringing created an unhappy if resilient man who would pass down questionable fathering to his own son.
Perhaps it is Jim's chutzpah that gives me so much more patience for him than I feel for Jimmy. Perhaps I simply like the aesthetics of Jim's story better; the fact that his world is late nineteenth-century Chicago and his father, a glazier, works on the White City of the world's fair. Perhaps Ware, for all the pseudo-autobiographical hints in Jimmy Corrigan, actually found Jimmy mildly annoying as well. Perhaps *because* of the pseudo-autobiographical aspects of the book, Ware found Jimmy annoying; an unpleasant, helpless aspect of himself amplified in fiction. (less)
A Clockwork Orange is not a morality play, but it bears enough of a resemblance to one that it seems worthwhile to consider it, provisionally, in thos...moreA Clockwork Orange is not a morality play, but it bears enough of a resemblance to one that it seems worthwhile to consider it, provisionally, in those terms. The morality play is a medieval form of drama that utilized allegory to instruct its audience on moral questions. The protagonist in a morality play usually represented humanity as a whole, or a portion of humanity (upper classes, clerics, etc.). All of the characters with whom the protagonist came into contact were equally symbolic figures, often personifications of abstract qualities, virtues or vices. A morality play was supposed to serve as a kind of ethical tool; a set of points on which to meditate for one's own moral good.
First, while not a stand-in for all of mankind, Alex is certainly more representational than he is idiosyncratic. In Burgess' pseudo-communist, authoritarian and lawless future (present? alternate universe?), Alex symbolizes autonomous and unguided male adolescence. We discover that Alex, though self-appointed leader of his small gang of friends/thugs, is not a rare creature in this brave new world. For one thing, bands of violent male gangs ("the teaming up was mostly by fours or fives," we are told) roam all over the city after dark and, for another, a couple of Alex's own gang members covet his power as leader as much as he revels in it. The only thing that sets Alex apart for the reader is that he is our narrator...and that he has a pristine sense of aesthetics, albeit one intimately woven into his appreciation for violence.
The other characters who populate Burgess' novel also seem symbolic and not literal. Our Humble Narrator interacts with types more than with distinct personalities - old drunks, young girls, maniacal prison doctors, disgruntled intellectuals - and with abstract concepts more than with people - authority, obedience, revenge, pain. Few of these characters actually come across as individuals and, accordingly, many of them do not have names but are simply referred to via a relevant characteristic (a physical feature, age, and so forth), for example, "young ptitsas" or "starry prof type". Most characters in the book are interchangeable with any other characters of their type and Burgess (via Alex), in fact, treats them this way. The old man whom Alex and his droogs harass at the novel's outset might be any old man. In fact, once the Ludovico Technique foils Alex's will to destruction, this former victim, along with a host of other irate old people, assault Alex at the public library. The individual victim's anger becomes the group's communal anger, his vengeance becomes their vengeance and, conceptually, they symbolize the weak and helpless seeking vengeance on the cruel and strong.
The most potent characters in the novel (and the ones most likely to bear actual names) are the figures of authority. Yet they are still representational. From prison guards to the Minister of the Inferior Interior, authority is symbolized by relatively flat characters who primarily serve to represent normalizing forces of a repressive society. They pursue the imposition of order at all costs, including the elevation of one-time hooligans to law enforcement officers. Authority, in A Clockwork Orange, exhibits no altruism or interest in ethical subtleties, but instead is bent on perpetuating its own power and enforcing capitulation with that aim. Tellingly, even the would-be revolutionaries, who at first seem so sympathetic to Alex's plight, seek merely to employ him as an instrument in their own quest with no regard for his own wellbeing. And therein is a central theme to A Clockwork Orange in its capacity as a sort of inverted morality play - the narrow margin between the just and the wicked. As hoodlums become authority figures, perpetrators become victims (and likewise victims become perpetrators) with alarming ease.
Then comes the ending. I read the complete version; the one with 21 chapters; the one that was not truncated by the American publishing industry and then preserved forever in film my the esteemed Mr. Kubrick. Without this ending, A Clockwork Orange feels like a bleak, but daring meditation on violence. With the ending, it feels considerably less daring, no longer bleak, and it really takes on this "morality play" aspect I've been toying with. [SPOILER WARNING] In Chapter 21, Alex-as-unguided-youth finds guidance within himself that he did not find in the state's medical manipulation of him. He grows spiritually tired of violence, realizes he's growing up, and decides he wants to stop beating up people and have a child. So the violence in this young man does fizzle as he discovers a desire to release productive rather than destructive energies. After this revelation, characters remain stand-ins for larger groups or ideas and do not grow into people: "But first of all, brothers, there was this veshch of finding some devotchka or other who would be a mother to this son." It is completely irrelevant to Alex who he finds to mother his child, because who would "everyman" want? "[S]ome devotcha or other," naturally.
And what do we learn here? A morality play does not mean supplying a moral, as in a fable, where the lesson you're supposed to have learned is spelled out. Rather the morality play presents a set of situations where abstract concepts interact in personified forms and questions arise regarding the rightness, wrongness, or consequences of a given act. As with a morality play, one gets the feeling that Anthony Burgess wants us to use the piece as an object for consideration more than he seeks to entertain or necessarily enlighten us. We are not supposed to identify emotionally with anyone in this story, but to react mentally to the substance of the story. At least I'm hoping that's the case, because the final resemblance of A Clockwork Orange to a morality play is that it feels so aloof and distant and (ironically for such a violent book) bloodless. It feels didactic. (less)
I hesitate to say this book disappointed me because it actually delighted me in a number of ways - its inventive first person/third person narrative v...moreI hesitate to say this book disappointed me because it actually delighted me in a number of ways - its inventive first person/third person narrative voice, its delving into Gnostic philosophy, the funereal humor especially at play among the Rhipidon Society members. Phillip K. Dick gives his readers plenty to chew on, as usual, and the pseudo-autobiographical tone is intriguing. However, in this case I found his plot on the thin side.
Now, I like idea-driven novels. I require no literary equivalent of car chases and explosions to keep me interested. I relish the mind games Phillip K. Dick plays with his reader and himself in exploring Horselover Fat's descent into (a perfectly sane, as it turns out) insanity. Perhaps what I missed in this novel, then, is not the dearth of plot, although I still stand by that assessment - it is thin the way an Aldous Huxley plot can be thin - built to convey philosophy and little else. And the plot-heavier portions of the novel, toward the end especially, seem only modestly thought-out, almost tacked on when the author realized he was almost done with his book and hadn't really told much of a story. That opinion notwithstanding, what I missed most was being taken into one of Phillip K. Dick's wonderfully crafted future worlds full of excellent detail - new powers-that-be, new slang, new drugs, old hangups.
So perhaps a foiled expectation has disappointed me more than anything the author did or did not do, but I won't rate this book any higher than I already have. Expectations or no, I found VALIS far less compelling than I am used to finding Phillip K. Dick's novels. I think this, perversely, has to do with the fact that it purports to depict events from the author's own mental life. That should be fascinating, but in the case of VALIS it's like listening to someone describe a half-remembered dream in confused generalities that function as detail. You wish he would just stop. You've already gotten the idea as well as you ever will, but the description goes on. The nature of dreams is that they cannot be described well. Especially half-remembered ones. Dreams are experiential events. And so is Horselover Fat's insanity. So is faith. And so are human relationships, for that matter. Not that we shouldn't attempt to describe these things, but if one does so in the form of a novel, it is kinder to the reader to provide her some tangibles along with the intangibles, some details to sink her teeth into while she ponders the deeper meanings of all of the philosophy. Communicating through metaphor? Perhaps that's what I'm getting at. Otherwise, write a treatise, an essay, something meant to educate and not necessarily entertain. Phillip K. Dick usually excels in this department.
All of this said, I will still surely read The Divine Invasion.
In order to really dissect my reaction to The Gunslinger, or really to any Stephen King book, I find it useful to distinguish a writer from a storytel...moreIn order to really dissect my reaction to The Gunslinger, or really to any Stephen King book, I find it useful to distinguish a writer from a storyteller. The former can be the latter and the latter the former, but these two aspects of authorship often appear separately in that much maligned category of book, popular fiction. Certainly, a multitude of simply unimaginative formula authors populate the booklists of popular fiction. And every once in a while a writer, a true wordsmith, appears in their ranks - someone who, in 100 years, will be considered lit-ruh-chuh or is considered so already. Toni Morrison has been a bestseller (thanks Oprah) and she, without doubt, is a literary writer of the utmost skill. I think more often, however, the authors of popular fiction, when not hacks, could be most accurately described as storytellers. Fiddling with language or challenging the reader's expectations for fiction do not comprise the project of a storyteller. They use their medium competently, but not particularly daringly, and mostly focus on weaving a fine tale. Unlike Morrison, these authors tend not to teach writing at universities. These are the authors who, in oral cultures, would have been bards, would have drawn crowds of listeners, and would have told the stories whence grow myths. Stephen King is such an author.
It took me a long time to realize Stephen King was no hack. His popularity and prolificness (as well as some of his readership) relegated him, in my mind, to the legion of formula genre authors who manage to sell book after book of the same story because your average reader craves formula and only likes what they already know. But Stephen King does not write formulas. As with any author of a great number of books, I imagine his quality can be uneven, but I have read some of his best and they are great. Stephen King won't change the way you think about the written word. He won't challenge your preconceptions about writing and what a novel is or should do. But he will tell you a story that you just sink right into, usually that frightens you, and that keeps you glued to the pages at every available opportunity. I read The Gunslinger in two days and these were fulltime-job work days, and I can't wait to start Book II.
So I extend my apologies into the cosmos and promise to remember that popularity does not make a novel or an author bad. Sometimes an author is popular, not because he's simplistic and your average reader is a dunce, but because his books are that good, that thrilling, that fun to read and accessible. And there's nothing bad about that. (less)