I know nothing about Camus or existentialism or any of that. I read this book as naively as possible, without reading any reviews, or any Wikipedia pa...moreI know nothing about Camus or existentialism or any of that. I read this book as naively as possible, without reading any reviews, or any Wikipedia pages, or anything.
It's a very short book, and with short books I feel compelled to take my time. In this case, I was rewarded for my patience with a very stirring and moving experience. I can't say it was a "novel" in the strictest sense of the word - the plot contains no real surprises other than the shocking and unexpected climax at the end of Part One. The thing I found so profoundly impactful was how deftly the writing got to the center of the struggle to go on living in a world where we are all walking around with a death sentence hanging over our heads, and how strange it is that any of us ever bother trying to feel anything.
There was no heavy-handedness about this. From the first sentence, all the facts are laid out in a purposefully non-reflective manner. The entirety of Part One comes off as if it had been taken down by a stenographer; just the facts. Despite being written in the first person, I felt like I was being held at a distance from the narrator, and this made me even more uncomfortable about his somewhat odd reactions to various events (his mother's death, his girlfriend's wish to marry him, his curious friendship with a self-absorbed, violent womanizer). He seems to have no thoughts at all, or at least he has no desire to convey them to the reader, but I felt sucked into his head just the same, wanting to understand him, even feeling sincere empathy for him as he allowed me to see his rather mundane walk through a life that appears to cause him to feel very little.
Part Two gave me a little more of a window into his heart, but ultimately, his motivations remain a mystery. I can't explain why I felt so strongly for him. It probably came from the subtle way he describes the world around him and his reactions to it. He has a moral and intellectual quietness that everyone can probably relate to on some level.
In short, I felt very strongly about this book; I found myself very sad and disturbed after putting it down. I don't know what to make of it. I probably never will, because the primary effect it had was not to puzzle and delight the reader with plot archs and colorful characters, but to paint a picture of something deeply disturbing and poignant. It has no answers.(less)
The short version: talented, engaging writing style; fantastic setup, which devolved into a meandering, boring story.
Most of the plot points (after th...moreThe short version: talented, engaging writing style; fantastic setup, which devolved into a meandering, boring story.
Most of the plot points (after the first 100 pages or so) felt like they were the author's first instinct, and she just went with them without much thought. She simply follows thread of every first idea, and lets that become the plot; this practice works, I would guess, about 2% of the time. Russell is a gifted writer, but not a gifted storyteller (yet). She's great at the details of her craft, but lacking in the big-picture aspects of writing - those that involve critically examining the _story_ of a novel, not just the words.
There was just no internal logic to anything that happened in this book, and I found myself extremely offended by the last 100 pages. Anyone who read the book probably knows what I'm talking about - there is a particular event that is absolutely horrific, but it seems like it was just thrown in there to upset the reader and then is never re-examined. It wouldn't have pissed me off so much if it were just an idea that the writer was exploring before she had polished her work - this is a perfect example of one of the "first ideas" that should have been either scrapped, or weaved into the novel more coherently. It's just too big of an event to throw in with such wrecklessness.
Anyway - I am willing to forgive this as a first attempt at the novel form. I haven't read Russell's stories, but I would expect her to be very good at them, based on her impeccable descriptive techniques and compelling "setup" ideas. But next time she attempts a story that exceeds 100 pages, she ought to think long and hard about the components of the story she is telling, and what kind of journey she is trying to take the reader on.(less)
This is a book you could read 8 times and come away with an entirely different impression every single time. It's a joyful page-turner, but it's also...moreThis is a book you could read 8 times and come away with an entirely different impression every single time. It's a joyful page-turner, but it's also extremely thought-provoking. Irving tackles some huge themes extremely deftly, exposing their innards without offering easy solutions (there are none). After a first read of the novel, the following ideas stuck out as central to the book:
- the tension between monogamy and lust; coming to terms with the fact that we all have sexual urges - struggle for understanding between the sexes - love of parent for child, and the fear of losing a loved one - the intellectual and emotional problem of being a writer
By far, the last of these stuck out the most. Irving describes with great authority the issues that a writer constantly needs to sort through in order to produce a work that is true to life, but also interesting and imaginative. I'm not a writer, but I still identified with this struggle somehow.
Anyway, it was a big, confusing, wild book, but ultimately the story holds up, the characters ring true, and the internal logic of the novel does not betray itself. It was an emotional roller coaster, but nothing felt forced, and I never felt cheated - just confronted with the realities of life, comic and tragic.(less)
Okay, I haven't finished it yet, but I can say with relative confidence that the ending isn't going to affect my feelings about this one. I'm only abo...moreOkay, I haven't finished it yet, but I can say with relative confidence that the ending isn't going to affect my feelings about this one. I'm only about fifty pages to the end.
Yeah, the prose was compelling... and the grittiness was almost tangible... But who is the protagonist? Presumably it's Arvin, as so far he seems to be the only character with any positivity, but Arvin has done absolutely nothing in the first 2/3 of the book. So no, he's not really the protagonist.
The story of the book is pretty minimal; most of the book has been devoted to detailing the absolutely disgusting and evil lifestyles of the various despicable criminals, and this gets pretty old after a while. Each chapter is like a little snippet, which is cool if each snippet actually advances the action, but the snippets are really just snippets here, glimpses of character without anything really happening. Sorry, but I need more than that.
As for the comparisons to Faulkner and O'Connor... really? Come on. The prose definitely has a certain kick to it, and I would gladly pick up the author's next book (haven't read the short stories, perhaps they are better), but to compare this guy to two of the greatest American writers who ever lived seems like a pretty ridiculous stretch. The guy is talented, no doubt, but this book shouldn't have gotten as much attention as it got. It's a trashy story.
But yeah, the writing is commendable; the author clearly has a lot to say, but from reading this novel it's hard to tell exactly _what_ he is saying. Character and setting are great, but a book needs a real, honest-to-god plot in order to make me feel like the journey was worth it. This one just didn't have the necessary ingredients.(less)
Interesting, challenging story compellingly told. I find Eggers' writing to be a little dry, but this one had me on board from the first chapter. The...moreInteresting, challenging story compellingly told. I find Eggers' writing to be a little dry, but this one had me on board from the first chapter. The narrative is tied together in a very interesting way - there is a little jumping around in chronology but it's never distracting or confusing, as long as you are paying attention.
It probably could have been condensed a little, but the book had lots of stuff to say beyond the obvious. There were some extremely touching bits, and while it was rather dense, I cared very deeply about the characters and the conclusion of the book was very satisfying. Gave me an "ahhh...." feeling after I finished the last page.
If you are ready for it, it's absolutely devastating. If you're not into it after the first three or four chapters, though, I would put it down. The f...moreIf you are ready for it, it's absolutely devastating. If you're not into it after the first three or four chapters, though, I would put it down. The fact that this book is force-fed to so many high school students infuriates me! The fact is, it's just not FOR the majority of teenagers. You're better off waiting to read it until you FEEL like you are the book's audience - otherwise it will not speak to you.
I picked this up about a year ago, when I was 21, and read it over the course of about 3 weeks, in small chunks. It had a huge impact on me. The voice of the narrator is the first thing that struck me (indeed, the entire first chapter is basically a prologue, setting the tone rather that advancing the plot). So humorous, poignant, witty, friendly. I found myself invited into a tale I KNEW was going to be ultimately full of anguish and despair simply because the voice of the narrator was so optimistic and carefree.
The story unfolds beautifully if you let it, but it doesn't really work if you try to rush it. I remember reading this book in high school and skipping some of the chapters where Ishmael goes from Manhattan to New Bedford to Nantucket to the Pequod, because I wanted to "get to the action." The problem is, the true action of this book is in the prose - the loving description of the characters, the multitude of different understandings we get of the sea, the whale, and Ahab, and the unbelievably high ratio of impeccably-phrased-universal-truths-per-page. The story itself is quite gripping, although it doesn't evolve in the same way a modern novel does; the pacing is very different than what I had come to expect from reading novels written post-1920 or so.
Ultimately, go into this book with the intention of immersing yourself in the world that Melville creates, and to form a close relationship with the characters, and you will get a lot out of the experience. If you find the book to be a chore after the first fifty pages, then I would recommend putting it down, waiting a year, and trying again.(less)
Poignant and ultimately quite depressing, but still a very full and generally enjoyable experience. I might have wished a little more had happened plo...morePoignant and ultimately quite depressing, but still a very full and generally enjoyable experience. I might have wished a little more had happened plot-wise, but this is a book where the action is in the heads of the characters, so I can't really fault it for that. They change in subtle yet profound ways as the story progresses and death inches ever closer.
The thing that made this great was the details. I highly recommend it. I read Shute's "A Town Like Alice," which I found cloying and relatively vapid. But this was really good.(less)
Sometimes terrifying/haunting, sometimes painfully repetetive and boring. There were some interesting parts, but in the end, I prefer a novel to have...moreSometimes terrifying/haunting, sometimes painfully repetetive and boring. There were some interesting parts, but in the end, I prefer a novel to have a storyline. This one just had a mood, and that's not enough for me. (When I say it didn't have a storyline, I mean that quite literally - sure there were a few events here and there, but they didn't advance anything or change the characters much). Plus, the ending was lame, obvious, and pretty arbitrary.
If you view it as a love letter to the father-son bond, then it has its merits, but don't buy into the hype that it's "gripping" - almost nothing happens in the entire book.(less)