SPOILER ALERT: Sometimes, I write the about the endings of books, films, and other narratives.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Lee's only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1961) has been read by more people than perhaps any other book our group has read previously (30 million copies sold), with the possible exception of Lolita.  Consequently, it is almost impossible to say something unique about the novel so I am going to address some of the less noted aspects of the book. 

Mockingbird is not a perfect book and has its detractors.  Some of the less flattering commentary has been superficial criticism based on Lee's use of the epithet, "nigger."  Other critics have complained about the fact that one of the characters, a white woman, was attracted to a black man, then falsely accused him of rape.  Those kinds of reactions are to be expected when a novel of this caliber addresses issues such as race and class, and does so in a divisive, but insightful manner.

Our group did not waste any time re-hashing these sorts criticisms that one expects to hear from readers who prefer inoffensive, non-controversial literature.  There are, however, some other points worth mentioning.  Specifically, there are a couple of characters who have appeared elsewhere in the world of literature.  The first character is Calipurnia.  It is possible to see the her as nothing more than the stereotypical Wise Black Servant (similar to Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury - Wm. Faulkner, 1929). 

The second character is Boo Radley.  He is the Local Monster, the ogre inhabiting a small town who is feared and avoided by all the children.  This character has also been used by a well-known writer other than Lee.  In 1946, the first copyright of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine (by Bradbury) appeared, then again in 1957 by Doubleday, preceding Mockingbird.  Set in Waukegan, Illinois, Bradbury's local monster was referred to as "The Lonely One."  Lee's small town, Monroeville, Alabama, featured Radley, a mysterious man who lived near the protagonist and narrator, Scout.  Both the Lonely One and Radley were, at least initially, blamed for attempting to victimize unsuspecting females.  To Lee's credit, though, there is an important difference between the two bad guys:  Radley turns out to be heroic.  Lee's transformation of Radley was a nice, surprising touch. 

(Note to aspiring novelists:  if you are in the process of writing a book set in a small town south of the Mason-Dixon line, and there is a character who is a black female servant, please do not turn her into Dilsey or Calipurnia.  Nor should you include a local monster in your cast.  The exception, of course, is if your black female servant becomes a brain-eating zombie vampire.  Then, you are headed for the best-seller list.)

Radley's heroism, surprisingly, becomes necessary because Scout's father, Atticus Finch, a well-regarded local lawyer, has misjudged the seriousness of the threat posed by another character in the book.  It is surprising because trial lawyers earn their living, in part, by becoming excellent judges of human character.  Despite Atticus' ability to expose lies spoken on the witness stand, he is unwilling to recognize that a character poses a real risk to his daughter's safety.  The irony of Atticus' failure to see this danger sets up a superbly tense climax to the story.  He won't acknowledge that, sometimes, 1) there are a few people in small towns who are truly evil; 2) children can have more accurate insights into human nature than adults; and 3) the smartest guy around can err in his judgment. 

These observations about the nature of humanity, beyond class and racism, make Lee's book truly literary and a valid starting point for discussion, regardless of whether the work is assigned reading or simply a great book you have always heard about, but never read.

Lastly, To Kill a Mockingbird was made into a film starring Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch.  I have not seen the film, but the author is said to have been pleased with it. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

As noted in the sidebar, our group focuses on what we generally consider works of literary value.  What makes a work "literary" has always been debatable, though, and we don't take ourselves seriously enough to forgo reading a cult classic from time to time.  Or, a local writer--especially if they have written a cult classic.  This month, we discussed the cult classic Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (rhymes with colonic!) which won the 1997 Pacific Booksellers Award and the 1997 Oregon Book Award for best novel.  Those awards are not what people typically think of when they think of Fight Club.  Instead, most people remember the film starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter, as well as the "first rule" of Fight Club:  Do not talk about Fight Club.  Well, we ignored the first rule, and there is no rule that prohibits writing about Fight Club.  (Note:  I will follow the convention of italicizing the title when I reference the book, but not when referencing the organization described in the novel.)

Palahniuk's book was, as noted above, well-received critically--even though he did not have the assistance of an agent when Fight Club was published.  Then again, if you were a literary agent in the 1990s and a diesel mechanic approached you with his first novel about an insomniac with a split personality (okay, "disassociative personality disorder" if you have a copy of the DSM IV handy) who creates an army of underclass anarchists, you might pass on it.  Nor would you have been impressed by Palahniuk's modest education background (Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Oregon).  According to one of the members of my group, Palahniuk worked at the Portland Freightliner plant and would periodically emerge from the mechanic's pit beneath a truck with the most recent draft of what would become Fight Club.  However, if an astute agent would have taken the time to read his work, they would have been impressed by how well Palahniuk's minimalist, postmodern style (pop culture and commercial references) complements the main character's rejection of consumerism and careerism, which requires references to pop culture.

Told in the first person, Palahniuk uses an unreliable narrator to lead us to believe--initially--that he and Tyler Durden are two different people.  And stylistically, it is not unheard of to have an unnamed narrator.  As the story goes on, we are gradually let in on the secret, i.e., that Durden is the narrator's alter ego, and that his creation of various fight clubs are outward manifestations of the struggle for control between the two personalities.

In addition to pummeling each other in the basements of bars, Palahniuk has his characters commit different crimes, and allows Tyler Durden to live out the fantasy of becoming an underground anti- hero to socio-ecnomically disenfranchised men around the country who feel the need to undergo ritualized violence in order to convince themselves that they have, in fact, become men and have the power to change society.  Palahniuk's examination of masculinity in Fight Club is fascinating in the sense that when he wrote the novel, he was a closeted gay, and includes a character ("Big Bob") who developed testicular cancer while using steroids as a part of the hyper-masculine pastime of professional wrestling.  Now, Big Bob has developed "bitch tits," hugs Tyler Durden during a support group meetings, and eventually joins a fight club.  To complete the commentary on the transitory nature of sexual characteristics, Durden periodically orders his followers to castrate certain individuals.

Tyler's army of anarchists wear black shirts--a reference to Mussolini and the Blackshirts--while Tyler becomes known around the country.  Or does he?  Tyler Durden is an insomniac, and an unreliable narrator.  How much of his story is "true" is questionable.  How many of the escapades are fantasy and how many are reality?  Given the number of historic instances of megalomaniacs inspiring followers to commit atrocities, there is enough plausibility in the story to keep us from writing off the plot as incredible.

My Norton paperback edition includes an excellent afterward by the author, who notes the bizarre, meta-fictional experience of being a blue-collar guy who becomes famous after writing a novel about a blue-collar guy who becomes infamous.  It's an excellent addition to the text.

Our next selection is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Prior to the appearance of Things Fall Apart (1959), there were virtually no novels of literary significance published in the English language by African writers. Of course, that is not to say that Africans were not producing narratives or art.  A major problem for English-speaking readers interested in African literature is that many cultures in Africa have relied on an oral tradition of story-telling.  Consequently, Achebe's novel made literary history based not only on the quality of the story-telling, but also on the fact that it was written in English.  As to whether it belongs within the "Western canon" (described more fully by this article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_canon), I am not going to immerse myself in that debate.  Our group focuses on quality literature, regardless of its origin.

Achebe was born in Nigeria, and was educated in schools within Nigeria created as a result of colonization.  Speaking English was required.  Like many writers, Achebe mines his life experiences - and those of others - for material in creating a story that is, in a number of ways, "English" literature.  Things Fall Apart can be viewed as a summation of African village experience in two parts:  pre and post-colonization.  His main character, Okonkwo, is modeled on the traditional (Western or Greek) model of the tragic hero.  The plot includes oracles, religious figures, omens, folk tales, violence, irony, and conflict with outsiders.  And along with tragedy, there is some humor.

One of the most refreshing and unexpected aspects of the novel is Achebe's criticism of not only some of the harsh practices of the English missionaries, but also of African villagers who, in the eyes of both Westerners and other Africans, commit acts of barbarism.  Achebe skillfully avoids the temptation to elevate one culture above another and instead chooses to describe the ways in which all cultures can negatively affect individuals through brutal, arbitrary customs that have the effect of weakening a group.

Ultimately, Okonkwo's village chooses a path that is at odds with Okonkwo's individual and traditional values.  What does a man do when his culture changes in a way that he cannot or will not accept?  Is it better to die or change? 

No discussion of African literature is complete without acknowledging Achebe.  Achebe, in turn, cannot discuss literature created in response to the colonization of Africa without referencing Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness.  The Norton Critical Edition of Heart of Darkness (1988) includes a number of essays about the work, including Achebe's now (in)famous "An Image of Africa:  Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" (based upon a lecture by Achebe at the University of Massachusetts in 1977, amended in 1987).

In his essay, Achebe asserts "that Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist.  That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked." (257, Norton ed.)  I agree.  Having read and discussed Things Fall Apart, Heart of Darkness, and A Bend in the River  (V.S. Naipaul--also set in Africa) the condescension of European novelists writing about colonialism comes through in Naipaul's work in the same way it emerges in Conrad.  Achebe is a vital counterbalance to Conrad and Naipaul, and should be read by anyone interested in the viewpoint of an African regarding colonialism. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Typically, I do some research prior to writing one of these critiques, but this is the first time that I have had to consult a medical dictionary.  Toole's main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, lives with his mother and is afflicted with a condition that causes his "pyloric valve" to open or close, depending on his level of emotional stress.  Although there is a pyloric sphincter muscle that opens and closes a valve that separates the stomach from the lower intestine, a cursory review of stomach ailments does not support the existence of the condition Ignatius suffers from.  This is a work of humorous "fiction" though, and unless you happen to be an expert in gastro-intestinal issues, you accept it as plausible - not that such acceptance is needed for a comedy.  As for the plausibility of the rest of A Confederacy of Dunces, well, that would depend on your familiarity with New Orleans and your sense of humor.  I haven't visited the city for a number of years, but his narrative feels real when I read it, and it is very funny. 

Toole died in 1969 so his Big Easy is set long before Hurricane Katrina.  The absence of references to a catastrophic hurricane and mobile phones are a few things that make the story a little dated, but not by much and certainly not to the point where it interferes with our enjoyment of the story.  Nor are there any references to the Vietnam War, but some of the more paranoid characters worry about them "communiss" being everywhere, and the sexual revolution has begun.  Ignatius, however, is too repressed to participate in the revolution.  Consequently, Toole continuously places Ignatius in situations where his repression results in comic discomfort.  At one point, Ignatius meets "Dorian Greene" (p. 256 of my Grove Press edition) - a reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (previously read by this book group) - who invites Ignatius to a party where he dances with another man and is eventually chased into the street by a group of violent lesbians.

Wilde isn't the only literary reference, though.  Toole has a Masters degree in English, as does his main character, so he mentions, for example, Proust, Twain, and Conrad along with some philosophers.  Another reference is to Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel by way of having Ignatius exhibit a variety of bodily functions.

Although this is not an epistolary novel per se, Toole effectively incorporates the technique into his writing, particularly in Ignatius' correspondence with his nemesis and love interest, Myrna Minkoff, a (white) woman who unsuccessfully attempted to provoke a social revolution by singing spirituals to black people.  Ignatius also spends a certain amount of time recording his thoughts on his legal-sized Big Chief tablets that are strewn about his bedroom.  Shortly after beginning a new job at Levy Pants, Ignatius writes:

The only sour note--and here I degenerate into slang to more properly set the mood for the creature whom I am about to discuss--was Gloria, the stenographer, a young and brazen tart.  Her mind was reeling with misconceptions and abysmal value judgments.  After she had made one or two bold and unsolicited comments about my person and bearing, I drew Mr. Gonzalez aside to tell him that Gloria was planning to quit without notice at the end of the day.  Mr. Gonzalez, therupon, grew quite manic and fired Gloria immediately....Actually, it was the awful sound of Gloria's stake-like heels that led me to do what I did.  Another day of that clatter would have sealed my valve for good.  Then, too, there was all of that mascara and lipstick and other vulgarities which I would rather not catalogue.

Ignatius' other career consists of pushing a hot dog cart around New Orleans.  He eats many of the hot dogs, of course.

Another character, Mancuso, is a detective who will lose his job unless he can find someone to arrest.  For a while, his assignments consist of wearing disguises while staking out mens' rooms.  I note this because police departments (and law enforcement personnel in general) frequently appear as characters or subjects in literature.  In fact, the "police procedural" is a separate genre.  Had this book been written closer to today, Toole may have arranged for Mancuso to encounter a certain (now retired) Republican senator from Idaho in one of the rest rooms.  At the beginning of the novel, Mancuso nearly arrests Ignatius, who says:

Is it the part of the police department to harass me when this city is a flagrant vice capital of the civilized world?....[F]amous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, Antichrists, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft. 

Not exactly what the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce would like you to read before your visit.  Then again, it cannot be said that things have changed a great deal when the U.S. Justice Department concludes that "[w]hile other departments generally have problems in specific areas, like the use of excessive force, 'New Orleans has every issue that has existed in our practice to date, and a few that we hadn’t encountered,' said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division."  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/18/us/18orleans.html?pagewanted=all

In this case, life and literature seem to be the same, after all.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller

In a previous blog, I mentioned that Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose depicted a specific era of U.S. history not often written about by serious novelists.  Herta Muller's semi-autobiographical novel sheds a personal light on an era of European history dominated by the influence of the Soviet Union and the dictators who benefited from such influence.  As one reads The Land of Green Plums, it becomes abundantly clear that there are aspects to life under a repressive regime - namely, fear and paranoia - that can be read about in news accounts and discussed, but cannot fully be understood except by those who have lived under such a regime. 

Green Plums is set in Muller's homeland, Romania, and although she does not identify the country's dictator by name, it is Ceausescu and his police-state regime that she describes.  In her Nobel lecture (included in my Picador edition), she talked about the threats, intimidation and persecution to which she was subjected as a translator in a factory.  In the novel, this experience and others form the basis for the lives of the characters.  One method used by the secret police (the "securitate") of entrapping Romanians into appearing as "collaborators" with internal spies employed by the secret police was to write fictitious letters to them from relatives.  (A portion of the wikipedia entry for Green Plums does not acknowledge that this was happening to the narrator in the novel, but if one considers the numerous examples of the securitate's reading everyone's mail and how the characters used code words in their letters, and hair in the envelopes, then it is obvious.)  Another method of oppression consisted of killing its political opponents, then declaring the death a suicide after a perfunctory investigation.  (Again, part of the wikipedia entry takes the description of Georg's death as a suicide at face value, but that is probably an incorrect interpretation given the nature of the securitate.)

The characters of Green Plums reacted to the continuous oppression by engaging in a variety of schemes to outwit the authorities, including the hiding of books and silencing of any conversation that could even remotely be considered the least bit subversive if overheard by someone whose trust was not assured.  And how would a person working in a factory demonstrate their trustworthiness?

"The workers steal scraps of wood and make them into parquet floors at home....Anyone who doesn't steal isn't taken seriously.... even if their apartments have wall-to-wall parquet, they can't stop stealing and laying more.  The parquet eventually covers the walls, right up to the ceiling." p.88

There were other police states in Europe during this era, including Hungary.  In March of 2011, the Associated Press reported that the Hungarian government proposed giving its citizens the right to destroy any files or surveillance reports about them created by the secret police during the time Hungary was controlled by communist and fascist governments.  (See "Historians fear loss of communist files" by Pablo Gorondi, Oregonian, March 6, 2011).  

The policy that the Hungarian government proposes empowers the victims of oppression, but also creates a situation where valuable documentation establishing the existence of the oppression would be lost.  It is my hope that there are Hungarians who are willing to allow their files to exist as historical documents and thereby reduce the likelihood of such regimes coming into existence in the future.  If the people of Romania and Hungary could have known in advance how bad their lives would become under communism, would they have been able to alter their futures?  Muller's novel does a superb job of informing the world of how people fare under communism and fascism, regardless of the volume of historical documents that can be amassed.  It is a novel that speaks the truth.   

Friday, January 28, 2011

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Stegner's Angle of Repose is a traditional historical novel, but it is unique among such works in that it seems to be the only critically significant novel set in the American West during the late 19th century.  The level of historical accuracy and detail is amazing, and is due to the fact that Stegner (1909-1993) was a historian and a novelist.  As part of his research, Stegner relied upon the letters of Mary Hallock Foote.  However, if you read the Penguin trade paperback edition (featuring a photograph on the front cover of a large tree with a ridge of mountains in the background) you will not find any mention of Foote.  To worsen matters, the publisher includes the standard disclaimer that "any resemblance to actual persons...is entirely coincidental."  If that disclaimer leads you to believe that Stegner made up the entire story, then you have been misled.  You may be misled again if you read the Wikipedia entry for Angle of Repose.  The site's anonymous author(s) adopt a different view, stating that Stegner's "use of uncredited passages taken directly from Foote's letters" is controversial.  At this point, it would appear that either everything in the novel is purely coincidental, or that Stegner engaged in some sort of literary theft, resulting in a Pulitzer.    

Fortunately, a member of the book group dispelled the controversy by sharing some information from her edition, explaining that the Foote family wanted to share the letters, but also wanted to remain anonymous.  Well, if you are Stegner, what do you do?  You have to credit your source, but your source wants to be anonymous.  The answer is that Stegner compromised by including a short paragraph immediately prior to the table of contents, saying, "My thanks to J.M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors....This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives...."  That seems like a reasonably accurate and honest way to acknowledge his debt to the Footes while simultaneously keeping them anonymous--at least for a while.

Structurally, Angle of Repose is a story within a story.  We are reading a narrative told in the first person by Lyman Ward, who is sitting in his study during the present day, narrating the story of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, into a tape recorder while he interacts with the other characters in his own life.  Perhaps a more accurate description is that this is a frame story since Stegner is using the story of Susan Ward to tell the story of Lyman Ward.  Although the terminology is a bit slippery, it is never confusing as to who the narrator is or about whom we are reading.

That is not to say, though, that Stegner is above confusing us in other ways.  He does this for at least one reason:  Stegner is a historian and historical research can be confusing when there is a shortage of information, leaving the historian with nothing else to do but speculate.  As a result, Lyman goes back and forth between imagining his grandmother's life and quoting her letters directly.  This, in turn, is a subtle way of presenting us with the problem of the unreliable narrator.  Sometimes, there are simply gaps in the timeline.  In addition, Lyman is unreliable because of his love and loyalty toward his subject matter:  the grandmother who raised him.  Can we reasonably expect a completely accurate history from a someone who is emotionally affected by what he is researching?  Can we rely upon him to tell the world the truth about his grandmother?  I don't believe so.  I like to think that my own grandmothers were saints, but they probably weren't.  Lyman says as much about Susan, but he cannot bring himself to depict his grandmother as someone capable of sexual infidelity.

(WARNING:  If you have not read the book yet, but intend to, you should stop reading this blog entry NOW.)

We, as readers, however, can discuss Susan Ward's temptations and did so during the book group's meeting.  Most of the group felt that Susan's tryst with Frank was limited to emotional infidelity, and stopped short of sex.  Others could see how Frank's suicide after the funeral for Agnes was due not only to the fact that he was the reason for Susan's neglect of her child, but because the child was his, too.  It comes down to how well we can rely upon Lyman to tell us the truth about his grandmother, and I do not believe that he can.  If Stegner wanted us to see Agnes as clearly the flesh and blood of Susan and Oliver, he would have described Agnes in a way that made her similar in appearance and temperament to her siblings.  Tellingly, he did not do that.  Agnes was different.  She was different enough so that she could have been fathered by Frank.

Finally, I enjoyed the fact that Stegner includes approximately two dozen literary references in Angle of Repose.  On page 421 of the Penguin edition I described above, Stegner has Susan attempting to read War and Peace which, given her character's cultured background, makes perfect sense and is historically accurate as Tolstoy's masterpiece was published in 1869.  Is Stegner showing off a bit?  If he is, I can't say that he is more guilty of that sort of thing than a lot of other authors.  If you love books, how can you refrain from referring to them in your own book? 

The book group's next selection takes us from the arid lands of the American West to The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller.       

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Candide (or Optimism) by Voltaire

At least 250 years after its publication in 1759, Candide is still very funny satire. My favorite line from Candide is, "let's eat some Jesuit"--probably because a good portion of my education is due to the Jesuits. Perhaps it would be even funnier to me if I was a Catholic, or maybe I would just laugh guiltily.

The book is simultaneously brutal and humorous. Although you will find it in the literature section as it is considered a novella, some of the "fictional" events are based on historical facts, and it was the failure of the period's intellectuals (Leibniz in particular) to deal with the harsh realities of the world (a major earthquake in Lisbon, the plague, and the Spanish Inquisition) that prompted Voltaire to write such a scathing rebuttal to some of those individuals. His lampooning of various governments and religions eventually landed him in prison.

One point of contention in our discussion of Candide was what Voltaire meant to say at the end of the novella. A straightforward way to approach the ending is in the literal sense, i.e., we should simply become farmers as opposed to traveling around the world, trying to figure out why human beings have an unlimited capability to act cruelly to each other. That advice works if it is 1759 and the industrial revolution is not yet in "high gear," so to speak.

Another approach would be to view the characters' retreat to a farm as Voltaire giving us the advice that it is better to retreat from the world--in whatever way you can--than to engage oneself with it. The ending of Candide is enigmatic: when Candide says for the second time that "we must cultivate our garden," is Voltaire trying to dissuade us from philosophizing about the existence of evil in the world? Is he critiquing the field of philosophy in general while simultaneously engaging in philosophy?

ADDENDUM: At the end of War and Peace (1869), Tolstoy (like Voltaire) spends a fair amount of time sharing his thoughts about the shortcomings of other intellectuals. Specifically, Tolstoy criticizes different methods of historical analysis. Tolstoy is particularly critical of historians who fail to recognize the role of "necessity" in their analysis of human interaction, and cites Voltaire as someone who has prematurely disregarded the role of religion. You can find this discussion on the second to last page of War and Peace (p.1,443) if you have the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Rosemary Edmonds.

Publishing note: My edition of Candide was a Norton critical edition, translated by Robert M. Adams. Other group members had other editions and translations. We discovered that they were all fairly similar, but not identical. Adams' translation uses slightly more formal language, however, so if that is what you prefer, then I can recommend the Norton edition which also has a number of critical essays following the text.