Quick Reviews, Part VI

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#93 Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

I wonder what it’s like to be casually extraordinary. Like, to casually accept prestigious writing awards and casually boggle minds. I’ll have to ask Toni Morrison someday—if, that is, I don’t collapse at her feet in a fit of casual tears.

Song of Solomon was (necessarily) a letdown after Beloved, but not by much. The story centers on Macon “Milkman” Dead and his dysfunctional family. After his ex-lover and his best friend attempt to kill him, on separate occasions and for separate reasons, Milkman journeys to the land of his ancestors in Shalimar, Virginia. There he hears the legend of his grandfather, Solomon, who escaped slavery in the South by flying back to Africa.

A multi-perspective novel with a touch of magical realism, Song of Solomon (1977) fits nicely within Morrison’s rich literary legacy… without, in my mind, transcending it. That said, the gaping emotional wreckage of these characters, wandering astray on their search for an identity, is palpable in a way that only Morrison could render. Just two books in to her long list of publications, I can safely consider all of her work a must-read.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It’s not Morrison’s best work, IMHO, but she’s still way ahead of the competition by most measurements.

Favorite Quotes:

Milkman could hardly breathe. Hagar’s voice scooped up what little pieces of heart he had left to call his own. 

Macon kept telling me that the things we was scared of wasn’t real. What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?

Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on—can you hear me? Pass it on! 

Read: 2016


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#80 Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel—the last one he completed—depicts the final hours of Geoffrey Firmin’s alcohol-fueled life as a British consul in the shadow of two Mexican volcanoes. Full of literary references and allusions, Under the Volcano could serve as Exhibit A in my theory on Literary Incest (references within the classics to other classics). Lowry invokes, among others, Shakespeare, Dante, Baudelaire, and (especially) Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

For all that, though, Under the Volcano only appealed to me stylistically—not thematically. Consider this passage:

It was a hangover like a great dark ocean swell finally rolled up against a foundering steamer, by countless gales to windward that have long since blown themselves out.

And this one:

There was something in the wild strength of this landscape, once a battlefield, that seemed to be shouting at him, a presence born of that strength whose cry his whole being recognized as familiar, caught and threw back into the wind, some youthful password of courage and pride—the passionate, yet so nearly always hypocritical, affirmation of one’s soul perhaps, he thought, of the desire to be, to do, good, what was right. It was as though he were gazing now beyond this expanse of plains and beyond the volcanoes out to the wide rolling blue ocean itself, feeling it in his heart still, the boundless impatience, the immeasurable longing.

Ooh, and this one:

He watched the clouds: dark swift horses surging up the sky. A black storm breaking out of its season! That was what love was like, he thought; love which came too late.

Lovely, right? RIGHT?? Sigh. If only the plot were as compelling as the writing. The story failed, at the end of the day (pun intended!), to keep a steady grip on my attention. Far from sitting on the edge of my spectator’s seat, emotionally invested in Geoffrey’s war with himself, I found myself wandering away from the battlefield, bored with the tedium of it all.

Here’s hoping my own end is quicker, less painful, and less lonely than the Consul’s—and my life story a little more cheerful.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

There’s so much potential here. For me, though, this book ultimately falls short of Greatness.

Favorite Quotes:

I learn that the world goes round so I am waiting here for my house to pass by.

Good God, if our civilization were to sober up for a couple of days it’d die of remorse on the third.

What is man but a little soul holding up a corpse? 

Read: 2017


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#37 Nostromo, Joseph Conrad

If Future Me had told Past Me, before I read Nostromo, that it would encompass love, betrayal, political intrigue, rebellion, shipwreck, and buried treasure, Past Me would have been like, “Yeah, but Joseph Conrad wrote it. So it’s monumentally boring, right?”

For what it’s worth, Past Me would have been right. And Future Me was, indeed, monumentally bored. In broad strokes, Nostromo (1904) is a story of colonialism and revolution set in the (fictional) South American country of Costaguana. In finer detail, it’s the series of events that lead an “incorruptible” man to corruption. (Spoiler alert: Those events are “greed” and “vanity.”) (Spoiler alert: Duh.)

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “I’d rather have written Nostromo than any other novel.” Robert Penn Warren called it “one of the few mastering visions of our historical moment and our human lot.” Both of them, in my mind, could work on their self-esteem, because I liked The Great Gatsby and All the King’s Men infinitely better than Nostromo.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

I think I’ve said enough.

Favorite Quotes:

I suppose they are homesick. I suppose everybody must be always just a little homesick.

We have disturbed a good many snakes in that Paradise, Charley, haven’t we?

All the earth made by God is holy; but the sea, which knows nothing of kings and priests and tyrants, is the holiest of all.

Read: 2016


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#50 Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

For all its fame, acclaim, and longevity, Tom Jones (1749) didn’t leave much of an impression on me. Over eighteen books, we accompany the eponymous Tom Jones on his adventures and misadventures across the English countryside. Tom’s wild antics and eventual reformation made it hugely popular among 18th century readers, and the book remains influential even today.

Henry Fielding wrote much of himself into Tom Jones, from his unbridled personality to his political objections, and he remains a credit to the name of satire. Still, a (charmingly) cheeky narrator and an (occasionally) sparkling wit weren’t enough to rescue this book from my apathy. I may give it a reread someday, but only if my TBR is barren.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’m getting a little impatient with the chronic conflation of the world’s earliest novels with the world’s greatest novels. Tom Jones serves as a model for what came later, yes. But we’ve had a lot of time to practice and perfect the novel since.

Favorite Quotes:

It does not smell like a Christian.

For it is very uncommon, I believe, for men to ascribe the benefactions they receive to pure charity, when they can possibly impute them to any other motive.

Twelve times did the iron register of time beat on the sonorous bell-metal, summoning the ghosts to rise, and walk their nightly round. In plainer language, it was twelve o’clock.

Read: 2016


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#74 Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

If you’ve ever felt predestined to murder someone, and even justified in doing so, because murder is excusable for “higher” beings such as Napoleon, and ethics are just crutches for the weak—please, please rethink your value system. It’s possible you are actually a narcissist with a shoddy moral compass. Maybe.

Your name might also be Raskolnikov, and you might have been invented by Dostoyevsky. His ultra-famous Crime and Punishment (1866) serves as a profile in courage cowardice—a mug shot taken with a macro lens—of an angsty killer on the run. And by “on the run,” I mean wandering around acting transparently guilty, especially in his meetings with the local detective.

If character study is your thing, Crime and Punishment will probably be a page-turner. I can recall more expansive psychological portraits on The List, but never a more intensive one. We are tipped straight into Raskolnikov’s brain two days before he axe-murders a crooked pawnbroker and her half-sister, and don’t emerge from his foggy thought lanes until he’s doing time in a Siberian prison.

Note, if you will, that playing “And Then the Murders Began” would barely change a thing about this masterpiece…

…which, in my book, equals awesome.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

I’m gonna have to go with YES.

Favorite Quotes:

Lying is man’s only privilege over all other organisms.

Suffering and pain are always obligatory for a broad consciousness and a deep heart. Truly great men, I think, must feel great sorrow in this world.

Just give yourself directly to life, without reasoning; don’t worry—it will carry you straight to shore and set you on your feet.

Read: 2016

This is the final installment in my Quick Reviews series! I’m sorry to have left so many “meh” books to the end, for your sake and mine. I’ll be sure to do things differently the next time I read and review The 100 Greatest Books of All Time (a.k.a. never, or at least not in this lifetime).

My last three reviews for The Challenge—Don Quixote, War and Peace, and Faust—will be up soon. In the meantime, happy reading!

James Joyce: #31 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, #2 Ulysses, #73 Finnegans Wake

Buckle up, friends. Put on your helmet and your kneepads. Duct tape yourself in a cocoon of bubble wrap, strap on some pillows, and pray to Jesus, because this won’t be just a bumpy ride or a Fourth Dimension roller coaster.

This is the literary apocalypse.

Before we heave ourselves into the word-pit of fire, let me introduce you to Mr. James Augustine Aloysius Joyce. Born in Dublin in 1882, Joyce was the eldest of ten children and evidently had something to prove. His first book, Dubliners (1914), is a collection of short stories; he followed it up in 1916 with the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His next novel was Ulysses, whose 1922 publication marked a pivotal moment in the modernist literary movement. Finnegans Wake (1939) would be his final work—his magnum opus and his death sentence—and would take him 17 years to write (and re-write, and re-re-write).

Joyce’s career was groundbreaking, and rule-breaking, and then some. In Portrait, he splashed around in the literary techniques he would eventually plunge into: stream-of-consciousness digressions, interior monologues, and unapologetic realism. Portrait tells the coming-of-age story of Stephen Dedalus, a heavily flawed student-turned-artist whose behavior alternates between hedonism and strict religious devotion. Stephen serves as an alter ego to Joyce, an allusion to the mythological Daedalus, and, eventually, the tormented Telemachus of UlyssesOdyssey-inspired cast.

Are you still with me? Great! Now, hold on tight.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a tough read. It takes itself very seriously, drifting in tone between poetry and sermon. It’s stuffy at the best of times, and inscrutable at the worst.

And it’s fucking child’s play—quite literally—next to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

Joyce’s final projects took decades of his life, and probably decades off his life. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are gorgons among books: many-headed, dreadful to behold, legendary, immortal—but not quite invincible. But when I say “not quite invincible,” I mean it would take—has taken—is taking—an army to defeat them.

We’ll tackle Ulysses first.

In a 1956 interview, William Faulkner had this to say about Joyce’s most famous novel:

You should approach Joyce’s Ulysses as the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.

A “day in the life” portrait of one Leopold Bloom, Ulysses is a mashup of fragmented thoughts, actions, feelings, memories, and dialogue, collectively intended to mimic the disorganization of the mind. Each episode corresponds to an event in The Odyssey, and each character to one of Homer’s.

Stylistic experimentation further complicates the narrative: In a chapter about music, for example, Joyce opens with a kind of “overture” composed of phrases from the text to come. Sounds such as a tapping cane and jingling car keys lend rhythm to the passage. In another chapter, Joyce’s voice follows the evolution of the English language from Latinate prose to Elizabethan, Gothic, and even American slang styles, among many others.

If I had to make one and only one complaint about Ulysses, it would be that Joyce determinedly prioritizes innovation and novelty over reader appreciation. In other words, it often feels as if Joyce would rather be misunderstood than understood—that he’d rather perplex than entertain—out of a sense of intellectual superiority. But why choose between respect and popularity when you’re talented enough to earn both?

As a form of protest, I have decided not to fear or love him. Instead, I vow to maintain a stubborn indifference.

Last up, we have Finnegans Wake—the most impenetrable book on The List by far. Regularly cited as the most difficult/challenging/inaccessible novel ever written, Finnegans Wake would be exactly as (in)coherent read backward as forward. (And, knowing Joyce, reading it backward may actually be reading it as intended.)

So what is Finnegans Wake about? According to Samuel Beckett, it is “not about something, it is that something itself,” an assessment that manages to be as pretentious as it is unhelpful. Michael Chabon offers nine different interpretations of its subject matter, ranging from “nothing,” “everything,” and “Hell if I know” to:

Recurrence, figured through the heavy use of recurrent initials (HCE, ALP), recurrent digits (1132, 566), recurrent imagery (giants, towers, heaps, and mounds), recurrent characters from jokes and literature (a Russian general who gets shot in the ass, Swift’s Vanessa), recurrent historical figures (Parnell, Napoleon, Saint Patrick), recurrent dyads (Adam and Eve, Mutt and Jeff), trinities (the Trinity), quartets (the Evangelists) and duodectets (jurors, apostles), recurrent snatches and snippets of balladry, recurrent garbled quotations from Swift, the Duke of Wellington, Mark Twain, etc.

and/or:

Joyce’s helplessness in the face of language, his glossolalia, the untrammeled riverine flow of words and wordplay in which James Joyce plunged, and swam, and drowned; the compulsive neologism that echoes, typifies, and indeed in a clinical sense accounts, genetically, for the schizophrenia—at times characterized by uncontrollable bursts of surprising and beautiful utterances—that afflicted his daughter, Lucia, and led to her eventual institutionalization.

He is possibly right on all counts, or equally wrong.

Recurrence and wordplay, at least, are well-established fixtures of Finnegans Wake, though the latter is more immediately apparent than the former. Nearly every word on every page is corrupted, complicated, or translated into something new or else. The puns come fast and furious; literary allusions abound; onomatopoeia gets a nod; and obscurity of meaning is less a product than a method. In fact, many layers of meaning can be dug out of every word and sentence. William York Tindall, author of A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake, dissected the protagonist’s surname, Earwicker, thus:

In it Ear (or time) is combined with wick (village or place, from Latin vicus). Place is space. A union of [Earwicker’s sons] the twins (Shem, time; Shaun, space), Earwicker is time-space. Ear suggests Eire and wicker suggests Ford of the Hurdles (made of wickerwork) or Dublin; hence Earwicker could mean a dweller (wicker) in Dublin, Ireland. In a pub time-place becomes “Time, please!”

Um, OK. Moving on.

Once drafted, each passage was deliberately convoluted, then mutilated further with every revision. “Universal history” became “manyvoiced moodmoulded cyclewheeling history.” “River” became “riverrun.” Historical figures and events were layered over Joyce’s own characters and their actions, and the whole narrative rendered in stream-of-consciousness.

I know, I know, you’re dying to read an excerpt. But didn’t anyone ever tell you to be careful what you wish for?

The following paragraph appears on page 100:

Achdung! Pozor! Attenshune! Vikeroy Besights Smucky Yung Pigeschoolies. Tri Paisdinernes Eventyr Med Lochlanner Fathach I Fiounnisgehaven. Bannalanna Bangs Ballyhooly Out Of Her Buddaree Of A Bullavogue.

And here’s what Tindall made of it:

“Achdung! . . . ,” a confusion of tongues as at Babel, not meant perhaps to be understood. Such confusions are also a comment on the difficulty of communicating. The present instance, a mixture of pig-Danish, pig-Gaelic, and pig-English, seems to mean this: Attention! The Viking king visits beautiful young girls. Three somebodies adventure with the giant foreigner in Phoenix Park. But banana Anna bangs the ballyhoo out of her buddy. (Bally is Gaelic for city.)

So glad to have that cleared up, aren’t we?

I can guess what you’re thinking. The whole book can’t be that bad, right? I obviously selected the toughest excerpt I could find to strike terror into your stout heart, didn’t I? Well, let’s try a little experiment. I’m going to flip to a random page and type what I find there:

Ah now, it was tootwoly torrific, the mummurrlubejubes! And then after that they used to be so forgetful, counting motherpeributts (up one up four) to membore her beaufu mouldern maiden name, for overflauwing, by the dream of woman the owneirist, in forty lands. From Greg and Doug on pour Greg and Mat and Mar and Lu and Jo, now happily buried, our four! And there she was right enough, that lovely sight enough, the girleen bawn asthore, as for days galore, of planxty Gregory. Egory. O bunket not Orwin! Ay, ay.

SO THERE.

The book, notably, features words and expressions from sixty languages, many of these tortured into puns alongside their English comrades. The title itself is a pun:Finnegan’s Wake” is a 19th-century Irish ballad about the wake of Tim Finnegan, who died falling off a ladder—or so his mourners believe. Joyce performed some grammatical sleight of hand (well, OK, he removed an apostrophe) and left us with Finnegans (plural noun) Wake (verb).

This is, of course, fitting, as Finnegans Wake is most often summarized as a dream narrative—a single night inside the mind of Earwicker (who may also, or alternatively, take the form of a Mr. Porter). The abandonment of plot, character development, and other traditional narrative structures is more easily justified within this context… but no easier on the reader.

My take? Finnegans Wake is a long game of Mad Gab, but a lot less fun. It’s Dr. Seuss, but a lot less cute. It is, in the words of one illustrator, “like trying to read while drunk.” No doubt, it changes your perspective on literature—not in some lofty, intellectual way (at least, in my experience), but insofar as it makes every other book seem elementary by comparison.

But most of all, finding myself on the other side of Finnegans Wake, I’m convinced that it’s not meant to be read—it’s meant to be studied. Joyce reportedly said that his goal was “to keep the critics busy for 300 years,” and we’re well on our way. For his Reader’s Guide, Tindall consulted numerous reference books and sat down with grad students at Columbia “in the belief that a committee, reading the text, talking it over, and bringing to it a variety of languages and learning, might do more with the book than I alone.” Decades of research and hundreds of researchers are bound to have both under- and over-analyzed this infamous mad-sterpiece.

Cyclical in nature, the book ends with the first half of a sentence and begins with the end of it. Joyce says on page 120 that the “ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia” would make his way through “the Wake

a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim.

To that I say:

Re-Joyce? You’re dreaming.

Are They Three of the Greatest Books of All Time?

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Yawn.

Ulysses: Stretch.

Finnegans Wake: Faint.

Favorite Quotes:

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night, though he knew it was in God’s power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy.

One single instant was enough for the trial of a man’s soul. One single instant after the body’s death, the soul had been weighed in the balance.

I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too.

Ulysses:

I have often thought since on looking back over that strange time that it was that small act, trivial in itself, that striking of that match, that determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives.

With thee it was not as with many that will and would and wait and never do.

He heard in a profound ancient male unfamiliar melody the accumulation of the past.

Once by inadvertence, twice by design he challenges his destiny.

Finnegans Wake:

Hohohoho, Mister Finn, you’re going to be Mister Finnagain! 

There is comfortism in the knowledge that often hate on first hearing comes of love by second sight.

And into the river that had been a stream (for a thousand of tears had gone eon her and come on her and she was stout and struck on dancing and her muddied name was Missisliffi) there fell a tear, a singult tear, the loveliest of all tears (I mean for those crylove fables fans who are ‘keen’ on the pretty-pretty commonface sort of thing you meet by hopeharrods) for it was a leaptear. But the river tripped on her by and by, lapping as though her heart was brook: Why, why, why! Weh, O weh! I’se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay! 

Where in the waste is the wisdom?

Read: 2014; 2016; 2017

Quick Reviews, Part V

#60 U.S.A., John Dos Passos

John Dos Passos’s historical novels The 42nd Parallel1919, and The Big Money were published together as the U.S.A. trilogy throughout the 1930s. Soaring in ambition, lengthy in execution, and experimental in styleU.S.A. chronicles the early decades of the 20th century—before, during, and after the First World War.

Each novel is constructed in four narrative modes. The first, and most familiar, is a series of fictional narratives following twelve characters as they make their way up the ladder of American society. The second, called the “Newsreel,” is a collection of headlines, article excerpts, advertisements, and song lyrics curated from major newspapers of the era. The third, known as the “Camera Eye,” is a stream-of-consciousness autobiography describing Dos Passos’s own life story. The fourth is an assortment of biographies recounting the lives of public figures from the period.

In other words, U.S.A. reads like a history book gone mad. It’s not exactly fiction, and it’s not exactly non-fiction, and it definitely stretches the definition of “novel.” It is equally concerned with real events and unreal characters. I may not be the target audience for this Frankenstein patchwork of a text, but I can think of a few people who are—and I don’t just mean the author’s contemporaries, who showered it with improbable acclaim.

Highlights of Dos Passos’s masterwork include:

  • Charlie’s bar fight with an opponent who whips out a machete,
  • learning that Thomas Edison first grew to fame at age 15 as the only person ever to print a newspaper from a moving train, and
  • the hopelessly obsolete slang terms, from “hunky dory” (good, fine) to “lettuce” and “kale” (both synonyms for money).

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

U.S.A. is original, but not especially well-crafted… so let’s call it one of the goodest books of all time and leave it at that.

Favorite Quotes:

Ned never said anything unless the talk came around to drinking or sailingships; whenever politics or the war or anything like that came up he had a way of closing his eyes and throwing back his head and saying Blahblahblahblah.

If they thought the war was lousy wait till they see the peace.

Read: 2016


#90 Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin

First things first: I loved this book. Loved it. This is the kind of book that makes the worst of The List worth fumbling through, and puts better-known authors to shame. This is the kind of book that sticks with you years later—that carries a great first impression into a long-term admiration. This is the kind of book you give enthusiastically as a gift, but only to readers you respect.

This is the kind of book that makes you jealous of the author.

Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) follows three generations of an African American family from the Reconstruction era in the South to the streets of 1930s Harlem. Relying heavily on Biblical themes, allusions, terminology, and rhythm of the King James variety, many critics have noted that the novel reads like a sermon.

Tackling heavyweight themes doesn’t always make for a Great book, but it doesn’t do this one any harm. The chief protagonist, 14-year-old John Grimes, struggles with family conflicts, a religious crisis, and his own coming-of-age, along with more peripheral issues like racism and sexuality. Go Tell It on the Mountain is, in fact, semi-autobiographical: After a religious awakening at the age of 14, Baldwin himself became a minister, preaching for three years at a Pentecostal church in Washington Heights.

Do yourself a favor and read this book. In a world of native advertising, Twitter, and emojis-as-wit, it might be time to remind ourselves what quality writing looks like.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Lawd, yes.

Favorite Quotes:

As the years passed, she replied only: “I’m going away from here.” And it hung, this determination, like a heavy jewel between her breasts; it was written in fire on the dark sky of her mind.

Men spoke of how the heart broke up, but never spoke of how the soul hung speechless in the pause, the void, the terror between the living and the dead; how, all garments rent and cast aside, the naked soul passed over the very mouth of Hell.

With the birth of Gabriel, which occurred when she was five, her future was swallowed up. There was only one future in that house, and it was Gabriel’s—to which, since Gabriel was a manchild, all else must be sacrificed. Her mother did not, indeed, think of it as sacrifice, but as logic: Florence was a girl, and would by and by be married, and have children of her own, and all the duties of a woman; and this being so, her life in the cabin was the best possible preparation for her future life. But Gabriel was a man; he would go out one day into the world to do a man’s work, and he needed, therefore, meat, when there was any in the house, and clothes, whenever clothes could be bought, and the strong indulgence of his womenfolk, so that he would know how to be with women when he had a wife. And he needed the education that Florence desired far more than he, and that she might have got if he had not been born.

Slow tears rose to her eyes; of joy, for what she had come to; of anguish, for the road that had brought her here.

Read: 2015


#97 Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Like James Baldwin, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s first book would become his most celebrated—and, like Go Tell It on the Mountain, Journey to the End of the Night (1932) is semi-autobiographical.

But this time we accompany antihero Ferdinand Bardamu from the trenches of World War I to the streets of colonial Africa. From there, he leads us to the Ford factory in Detroit and then homeward to France. Bardamu, disillusioned to the point of cynicism by his experiences as a soldier, is highly critical of the “slaughterhouse” of war, declaring cowardice to be the only safeguard against its lunacy.

My own flashbacks to Catch-22 proved relevant: Céline was, apparently, a substantial influence on Joseph Heller. But Céline’s influence was broader than that by far. French literature had never seen anything quite like Journey—full of slang, obscenities, and vernacular, with an emphasis on the rhythm of spoken language. The book’s release was met with controversy, and Céline narrowly missed out on the Prix Goncourt in a contentious vote.

The end of this anti-nationalist, anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist novel sees Bardamu working as a medical doctor in a poor suburb of Paris, calling war and illness “two infinities of nightmare.” It is precisely this beautiful, blunt language that makes Journey to the End of the Night so compelling—and precisely the kind of melancholy that makes it a tough read.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’m going to reserve my judgment until next time. This is going back on my TBR.

Favorite Quotes:

That was the only time France ever saved my life, otherwise the opposite has been closer to the truth.

After all, why wouldn’t there be an art of ugliness as well as beauty?

Certain words are hidden in with the rest, like stones. They’re not very noticeable, but before long they make all the life that’s in us tremble, every bit of it in its weakness and its strength.

You can lose your way groping among the shadows of the past.

Read: 2015


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#79 Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White

One of only a handful of classics focused entirely on animals, Charlotte’s Web is a masterpiece of children’s literature that resonates long into adulthood. Simple in style but warm in tone, E. B. White’s barnyard tale is a testament to the power of friendship, with no trace of sentimentality.

Wilbur the pig is the runt of the litter, but his life is saved by a farmer’s daughter named Fern. When Wilbur is sold to Fern’s uncle, he receives a chilly welcome from the other barnyard animals—except Charlotte the spider. Wilbur soon discovers that his days are numbered, and Charlotte devises a plan to save his life: Using magazine scraps as a guide, Charlotte weaves words of praise for Wilbur into her web, attracting attention from neighboring farmers and then regional publicity. As his fame grows, so do his chances of survival.

At the county fair, Charlotte spins an egg sac and warns Wilbur that her own life is nearly at an end. Wilbur heroically retrieves her unborn children and carries them back to the barn. Charlotte dies, and Wilbur is devastated when her babies abandon him, too—until he sees that the three smallest spiders stayed behind.

In case you haven’t read it, and in case this isn’t clear above, THIS BOOK WILL KARATE CHOP YOUR HEART INTO PIECES. It was one of the first children’s books to address death and grieving, and we’re clearly not prepared even now for its wistful poignancy.

Or maybe that’s just me.

My final word on this understated treasure of a book: Charlotte the spider is a feminist icon, and I don’t care who says otherwise. All the pathetic whiners who struggle to write female characters with agency can find a quick lesson right here. Charlotte is a brilliant, loyal, and tenderhearted badass who saves her friend’s life and never even asks for gratitude—all while pregnant. She’s an American hero. And if all spiders were a little more like her, I would not hide from them in a disgusted panic.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

If Wilbur is SOME PIG, this is undoubtedly SOME BOOK.

Favorite Quotes:

Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will. 

Life in the barn was very good—night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.

Read: 2016


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#92 A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange (1962) has the rare honor of being a source of shame and regret for its author, overtly and publicly. Nine years after its publication, a film adaptation led by Stanley Kubrick distorted, in Burgess’s view, the book’s most fundamental message—glorifying violence rather than condemning it. This, combined with his American publisher’s exclusion of the novel’s final chapter—in which the protagonist comes to view violence as “juvenile and boring”—left far too much room for misinterpretation, and Burgess spent much of his later career distancing himself from his most celebrated work.

We can destroy what we have written, but we cannot unwrite it,

he said in his introduction to the 1986 edition. Still, however much I sympathize with Burgess’s disappointment over the book’s misguided public perception, I’m very glad A Clockwork Orange exists.

Don’t get me wrong: The violence in A Clockwork Orange is brutal. It’s sickening and horrifying and repulsive. And, were it handled any differently, by a less talented author, I would have hated this book loudly and often for the rest of my life.

But Burgess paints his violence through a portrait, carefully and thoughtfully. The book’s protagonist, Alex, is a sociopath and gang leader in a dystopian future. Clever but cruel, Alex accompanies his friends on a series of random attacks before his arrest and conviction for murder. In prison, he is subjected to an experimental treatment called the Ludovico Technique that functions much like aversion therapy. Alex is temporarily “cured,” raising questions about free will and the evils of government. After a suicide attempt, he returns to his old ways… but in the final, long-omitted chapter, Alex matures enough to consider how his contributions to society might be constructive instead of destructive.

The novel’s most fascinating element, at least for me, was Burgess’s use of fictional slang terms he called, collectively, “Nadsat.” A mixture of Russian loan words, Cockney rhyming slang, Biblical language, German influences, and more, Nadsat is integrated into the text exceptionally well. I listened to A Clockwork Orange on audiobook and would recommend the same to anyone particularly interested in the inventive linguistic features of the novel.

And if you can’t/won’t do that, I’d still recommend reading it the traditional way.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’ve never seen these exact themes managed quite this well before. But a better reflection of this book’s distinct merit is, perhaps, that I fully expected to hate it, and ended up loving it. It’s tough to stomach, definitely, but well worth the effort.

Favorite Quotes:

What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?

Read: 2016

We’re officially winding down on the Quick Reviews series—only one more to go before I close out The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. If you missed any previous installments, check them out here:

Happy reading!

#13 One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

Happy Thursday, everyone! I hope you’re in the mood for a Quote-tacular Quote-a-palooza, because that’s what you’re getting today.

I’m not going to do a long-form review of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) for three reasons: 

  1. The book follows multiple generations of the Buendía family in their fictional hometown of Macondo, and many of them share the same name. Writing a brief and/or coherent plot summary would be impossible (or adjacent to it).
  2. It’s full of strange themes and stranger events, and I wouldn’t want any of these to sound off-putting. One Hundred Years of Solitude is INCREDIBLE, and you owe it a read.
  3. My attempt at a review would probably come out like a garbled chain of superlatives, leaving no room for wit and no time for insight. (In other words, what’s the point?)

So instead of going the traditional route, I’m simply going to copy in all my favorite quotes. This way, you can taste a few delicious morsels or dip one of your wrinkly toes in. This way, you’ll get a sense of Márquez’s style, his timelessness, his surrealism, and his magic. This way, you’ll catch a glimpse of genius undiluted by my rambling.

This way, we all win.

Here we go. Happy reading!

That was the way he always was, alien to the existence of his sons, partly because he considered childhood as a period of mental insufficiency.

Normality was precisely the most fearful part of that infinite war.

In the shattered schoolhouse where for the first time he had felt the security of power, a few feet from the room where he had come to know the uncertainty of love, Arcadio found the formality of death ridiculous.

He started writing again. For many hours, balancing on the edge of the surprises of a war with no future, in rhymed verse he resolved his experience on the shores of death.

“You have taken this horrible game very seriously and you have done well because you are doing your duty,” she told the members of the court. “But don’t forget that as long as God gives us life we will still be mothers and no matter how revolutionary you may be, we have the right to pull down your pants and give you a whipping at the first sign of disrespect.”

He had reached the end of all hope, beyond glory and the nostalgia of glory.

[Her] actions had been a mortal struggle between a measureless love and an invincible cowardice.

Death really did not matter to him but life did, and therefore the sensation he felt when they gave their decision was not a feeling of fear but of nostalgia. 

The locked room, about which the spiritual life of the house revolved in former times, was known from that time on as the “chamberpot room.” 

He could not understand why he had needed so many words to explain what he felt in war because one was enough: fear. 

The spirit of her invincible heart guided her through the shadows.

Once again she shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle. 

Her heart of compressed ash, which had resisted the most telling blows of daily reality without strain, fell apart with the first waves of nostalgia.

Both of them remained floating in an empty universe where the only everyday and eternal reality was love.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

I WILL NOT DIGNIFY THIS WITH AN ANSWER.

Read: 2014

Quick Reviews, Part IV

#63 An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser 

It was, I think, Mignon McLaughlin who once said:

It’s innocence when it charms us, ignorance when it doesn’t.

This pretty much sums up my hatred for An American Tragedy (1925).

Everyone in this book is insufferable. Everyone. There’s Asa and Elvira Griffiths, hapless and helpless to the tips of their fingers. There’s Hortense Briggs, and her whining, and her shopping addiction. There’s Roberta Alden and her drab insecurity, Gilbert Griffiths and his pointless grudge, Sondra Finchley and her baby-talk, and the rest of the Lycurgus social elite. All of these people make Voldemort seem warmhearted and vivacious by comparison.

Most of all, there’s Clyde Griffiths, our watered-down protagonist, who pairs an insipid personality with a cutthroat sense of greed. THESE ARE A FEW NONE OF MY FAV-O-RITE THINGS.

There is, frankly, nothing and no one to like here. Dreiser’s plot is tedious, and his writing simplistic. The moral of the story seems to be that chasing the American Dream will get you strapped into an electric chair… but so will being a murderous asshole. By my estimation, we, the readers, are the real victims here—so Clyde can close his sniveling gripe-hole any time now.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It wouldn’t be the greatest book of all time if it were the only book ever written. Stick to your day job, Dreiser.

Favorite Quotes:

As they sang, this nondescript and indifferent street audience gazed, held by the peculiarity of such an unimportant-looking family publicly raising its collective voice against the vast skepticism and apathy of life.

Read: 2016


#85 The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

Now we’re talking. What do you get when you try to write four books at once?

A fifth book, apparently. A golden one.

At least, that’s how the story goes for Anna Wulf, who fills four color-coded notebooks with the most intimate of details: black for her childhood in Southern Rhodesia, red for her time in the Communist Party, yellow for her manuscripts, and blue for her personal diary. Anna decides, ultimately, to unite this fragmented rendering of her life into one final notebookThe Golden Notebook (1962).

This, folks, is what we call postmodernism.

Among Lessing’s more prominent themes are mental and societal breakdown, anti-war protest and communism, women’s liberation, romantic love, and parenthood. This takes it, inevitably, quite far from being a light read, but it is a compelling one. There is something raw and fearless about it, something deeply honest but carefully engineered—something that tells me I’ll pick this book up again someday to take another ride.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I wouldn’t jump right to “Greatest” from a preliminary read, but there’s nothing else quite like it on The List.

Favorite Quotes:

I was filled with such a dangerous delicious intoxication that I could have walked straight off the steps into the air, climbing on the strength of my own drunkenness into the stars. And the intoxication, as I knew even then, was the recklessness of infinite possibility, of danger, the secret ugly frightening pulse of war itself, of the death that we all wanted, for each other and for ourselves. 

Time is the River on which the leaves of our thoughts are carried into oblivion.

People don’t mind immoral messages. They don’t mind art which says that murder is good, cruelty is good, sex for sex’s sake is good. They like it, provided the message is wrapped up a little. And they like messages saying that murder is bad, cruelty is bad, and love is love is love. What they can’t stand is to be told it all doesn’t matter, they can’t stand the formlessness. 

“For Christ’s sake, you must understand sex isn’t important to me, it just isn’t important.”
I said: “You mean sex is important but who you have it with isn’t.”

Read: 2014


#56 Animal Farm, George Orwell

George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) came out of left field and blew me away, to the point that I was disappointed when it ended.

Well, OK, almost disappointed. The List is really long, guys.

Orwell intended Animal Farm as an allegory for the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Stalin regime, and he was NOT subtle about it. Stalin is literally depicted as a tyrannical pig named Napoleon. Following a farm-wide rebellion against their cruel human caretakers, the crafty Napoleon wrests power away from his fellow leaders with an army of dogs. All the ideals of their revolution, from equality to loyalty, are either crushed or forgotten as time passes and oppression soars. In the chilling final pages of the story, the pigs begin to walk on two legs… much like their human masters of old.

A democratic socialist, Orwell opposed communism, along with the totalitarian propaganda that so often fuels it. He described Animal Farm as an effort “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole,” which sounds boring but isn’t. Take it from me—someone who is, broadly speaking, repulsed by politics—that this is worth a read anyway. Orwell’s writing style is simple but riveting, and his farm animal cast makes a play-by-play of totalitarianism surprisingly readable.

Just keep in mind that this is not “a fairy story” with a happy ending. After all, this is the book that gave us the famous saying “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Absolutely. It meets my two criteria—originality + expert craftsmanship—and then some.

Favorite Quotes:

Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

Read: 2015


 

#18 On the Road, Jack Kerouac

I’ve always understood On the Road (1957) to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of phenomenon, like Taylor Swift or Marmite.

My take? It’s the same for all three, actually: something in between. I love them, sure, but only in small doses. I love them in spite of their flaws, and sometimes because of them. And I love them most of all for their ability to provoke, despite being pretty damn harmless.

The ultimate road trip narrative, On the Road is perhaps less about purpose or destination than the feeling of adventure. This book evokes travel, and the American landscape, like no other. There’s an undeniable appeal in the vitality of it—the anarchy of it—as it matches stroke for stroke, in form and function, the feel of being young, and wild, and free, and stupid. The manifesto of the Beat movement characterized by hedonism and experimentation, On the Road invites us on a spontaneous journey to rescue ourselves from tradition and conformity, all for the cost of paper and gas.

Jack Kerouac famously drafted On the Road on one continuous scroll of paper over the course of three weeks in 1951. The story follows Sal Paradise (based on the author) and Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady) on a series of cross-country jaunts marked by sex, drugs, and jazz. Controversial at the time of publication, On the Road still marches to the beat of its own drum, occupying a unique corner in the American imagination.

As much as I admire Kerouac’s monument to freedom and Americana, I felt a restlessness reading On the Road that had less to do with my own life than the choices Sal and Dean made with theirs. As it turns out, even adventure can become monotonous. Which is why I’ll say it again: The best way to fall in love, with On the Road or with your own soul mate, is carefully, in small doses.

Marmite-style.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’m going to go with yes. It’s not perfect, but few classics are.

Favorite Quotes:

The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then.

I have finally taught him that he can do anything he wants, become mayor of Denver, marry a millionairess, or become the greatest poet since Rimbaud. But he keeps rushing out to see the midget auto races.

I told Terry I was leaving. She had been thinking about it all night and was resigned to it. Emotionlessly she kissed me in the vineyard and walked off down the row. We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time.

If nobody’s home, climb in through the window. Signed, Remi Boncoeur

What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

So I went up and there she was, the girl with the pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long. We agreed to love each other madly.

“We gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”

Read: 2014


#59 Gargantua & Pantagruel, François Rabelais 

Don’t be fooled by those back-cover references to the “dazzling and exuberant comic Chronicles of Rabelais,” or the “ingenious wordplay and mastery of language” evoked by Gargantua & Pantagruel (1532–1564).

This book is so, so boring.

Listen to some of these chapter titles:

  • On the Origins and Lineage of the great Pantagruel
  • How Pantagruel fairly judged an amazingly hard and obscure controversy so equitably that his judgement was termed more wonderful than that of Solomon’s
  • How Pantagruel departed from Paris on hearing news that the Dipsodes were invading the land of the Amaurots. And why the leagues are so short in France. And the Exposition of a saying inscribed upon a ring
  • How Gargamelle, when carrying Gargantua, took to eating a great profusion of tripe
  • How Gargantua was dressed
  • Gargantua’s colours and livery
  • What the colours white and blue do signify
  • How Gargantua spent his time when it was rainy
  • Why everyone avoids monks: and why some men have noses which are bigger than others
  • How Panurge had a flea in his ear and gave up sporting his magnificent codpiece
  • The Excuse of Panurge; and an exegesis of a monastical cabbala concerning salted beef
  • How lawsuits are born and how they grow to perfection
  • How Xenomanes describes Quarêmeprenant anatomically
  • How in the Court of the Master-Inventor Pantagruel denounced the Engastrimyths and the Gastrolaters

You’re already bored, aren’t you? I’m bored all over again just looking at this book.

It had potential. I’ll give Rabelais that much. This 16th-century pentalogy follows two giants (a father and son) on their many misadventures in Medieval/Renaissance France. Much is made of the book’s satirical, scatological, and violent themes, but even these could not deliver me from indifference. And just in case you don’t believe me, and want to try it out for yourself: Give those chapter titles one more read.

I think we’ll see eye to eye in no time.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I don’t even know—I only half-paid attention.

Favorite Quotes:

Then they gave us heartfelt advice: if we wanted to rise in the courts of great noblemen, to be as economical as possible of the truth.

Would you say (as one may indeed logically infer) that the world was heretofore daft but now become wise? How many and what conditions were required to make it daft? And how many and wise to make it wise? And why was it daft? And why should it now be wise? By what qualities did you recognize its former folly? By what qualities, its present wisdom? Who made it daft? Who made it wise? Who form the greater number: those who liked it daft or those who like it wise? For how long was it daft? How long has it been wise? Whence proceeded its antecedent folly and whence its subsequent wisdom? Why did its antecedent folly end now and not later? Why did its present wisdom begin now and not earlier? What ill did that antecedent folly do to us? And what good, the subsequent wisdom? How could that old folly have been abolished? And how could the present wisdom be restored? 

Nothing is more dear nor more precious than time: let us spend it on good works.

Read: 2016

Check out Quick Reviews: Part I, Part II, and Part III for more fun and games whining and mocking.

Oh, and here’s the premise behind the Quick Reviews series. (I’ll give you a hint: It’s laziness.)

Quick Reviews, Part III

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#72 Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence

On the back cover of my Signet Classics edition of Sons and Lovers, E. M. Forster declares D. H. Lawrence to be “the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation.”

This is ironic for two reasons:

  1. There is nothing imaginative at all in Sons and Lovers. The book is known, in fact, to be largely autobiographical.
  2. E. M. Forster himself—a fellow member of Lawrence’s generation—is more imaginative. And even that isn’t saying much.

Sons and Lovers is no more than a protracted look at the Oedipus complex—and not a very insightful one, IMHO. At the head of the Morel family stand an alcoholic miner hated by his children and an anguished housewife adored by them. Eventually, the sons grow up and fall in love/lust, and the shit hits the fam. All of them spew a steady stream of verbal abuse at each other—father and mother and sons and lovers. Apparently the “sex scenes”—by which I mean vaguely sensual forest romps—were considered obscene back in 1913. To the modern reader, they are too ambiguous to be sexy and too boring to advertise.

I am pleased to say Lawrence and I can call it quits now that I’ve put Sons and Lovers and Women in Love behind me. I fail to see how his work is in any way outstanding, well-crafted, or entertaining.

And that’s putting it nicely.

Is It One of the 100 Greatest Books of All Time?

May I quote Bart Simpson? “I didn’t think it was physically possible, but this both sucks and blows.”

Favorite Quotes:

She could not be content with the little he might be; she would have him the much that he ought to be.

Then Dawes made a remark which caused Paul to throw half a glass of beer in his face.
“Oh, Mr. Morel!” cried the barmaid, and she rang the bell for the “chucker-out.”
Dawes spat and rushed for the young man. At that minute a brawny fellow with his shirt-sleeves rolled up and his trousers tight over his haunches intervened.

He loved her. There was a big tenderness, as after a strong emotion they had known together, but it was not she who could keep his soul steady.

Read: 2015


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#28 Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, sayings things she didn’t mean…

writes Virginia Woolf of her genteel heroine. That, and PTSD, provide the outline for this modernist masterpiece.

Modernism describes the literary period from around 1900 to the end of World War II—a period marked by dramatic experimentation with traditional narrative forms. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and pretty much everything written by James Joyce or William Faulkner fall squarely into this category.

Woolf toys with both substance and style in Mrs. Dalloway (1925). The novel takes place over a single day, largely inside the minds of its two protagonists (the eponymous Clarissa Dalloway and a World War I veteran by the name of Septimus Warren Smith). Major themes include isolation and oppression, memory and madness, and the trauma inflicted on an entire generation by war and its aftermath.

I say give it a chance. Mrs. Dalloway will walk you through the streets of Westminster, buy you flowers, and throw you a party. And even if you hate London, and flowers, and parties, hey-o… this book is super short.

Is It One of the 100 Greatest Books of All Time?

It’s hard to pull off a meaningful “day in the life” portrait, but Woolf manages it with seeming ease.

Favorite Quotes:

The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames.

She had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying — what one felt.

The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.

Read: 2013


#95 King Lear, William Shakespeare

Like I always say (or said, at least, that one time): If you’re going to write a tragedy, make it the TRAGEDY TO END ALL TRAGEDIES.

The problem with this advice is that only Shakespeare can write a truly sensational tragedy. And only Shakespeare can top Shakespeare.

So… yeah. Good luck with your tragedies, and all.

Here we go:

King Lear wants to retire. But first, he has to divide up his kingdom. Easy, he thinks. I’ll just slice it into thirds and pass one wedge to each daughter. I’ll even put a little whipped cream on top. That’ll be easy, too, because it comes in this handy aerosol can.

But it’s not easy. Nothing is easy for idiots. King Lear decides to give the largest share of land to the daughter who loves him the most.

The ass-kissing that follows is exquisite.

But, soon, everything starts to suck. Daughters are disowned. Earls are fired. Kings run naked across stormy heaths. Eyeballs get torn out. And then everyone dies.

In other words: King Lear is your family Thanksgiving.

Here’s hoping y’all skip the pie.

Is It One of the 100 Greatest Books of All Time?

Duh.

Favorite Quotes:

The rain it raineth every day.

But his flawed heart—/Alack, too weak the conflict to support—/’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief/Burst smilingly. 

If Fortune brag of two she loved and hated/One of them we behold. 

Read: 2015


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#35 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

Noteworthy features of the so-called “World State” in Aldous Huxley’s famous (and infamous) 1932 novel include:

With this in mind, we get to know Bernard Marx. Bernard is an Alpha but feels like an outcast, which is hardly fair. So on his trip to a “Savage Reservation” (similar to the Native American reservations of today), he picks up a souvenir that will catapult him to celebrity status: his boss’s son, John, raised by his mother and Shakespeare’s collected works among the villagers there.

Bernard decides to take John back to London as a kind of social experiment. The experiment, as you could probably guess, is a disaster, rife with shame, drug abuse, self-flagellation, and exile (in that order, or almost).

Thirty years after the publication of Brave New World, Huxley revisited his vision of the future to assess its accuracy. In what was hardly a class act, he gave a smirk and announced, “Haha, told you so.” But he probably wasn’t referring to the public orgies… unless he caught a glimpse of MTV.

Is It One of the 100 Greatest Books of All Time?

It’s got something—I’m just not sure if it has enough of that something.

Favorite Quotes:

Wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way. 

But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.

Crying: My baby, my mother, my only, only love; groaning: My sin, my terrible God; screaming with pain, muttering with fever, bemoaning old age and poverty — how can they tend the wheels? And if they cannot tend the wheels… The corpses of a thousand thousand thousand men and women would be hard to bury or burn.

Lying in bed, he would think of Heaven and London.

Read: 2014


#55 Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett

WTF, Beckett.

WTF.

Like, what is this? I can’t even.

In the words of the great Wikipedia Britannica:

One does not get a sense of plot, character development, or even setting in this novel.

Oh no—no, of course not, because that would be preposterous. That would result in a book, whereas this is meant to be…

Well, I don’t know, really. You’d have to ask Samuel Beckett, if he’s not too busy listening to Fleetwood Mac. All we’ve been able to make of this postmodernist mess (yes, we’re into post-modernism now) is that it largely records the rambling interior monologue of Malone, an old man lying naked in a hospital or insane asylum (we can’t be sure, because Malone isn’t). Highlights of this meditation include a nurse with a crucifix carved into her tooth, a bearded giant (aren’t they all?), a boat and a picnic, a dropped pencil, and a boy named Sapo, who is later renamed Macmann because Malone can’t “stomach” the name Sapo anymore.

Beckett translated Malone Dies from French to English himself and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969…

…which just goes to show how easy it is to confuse lunacy with genius.

I kid, I kid! Although now that I mention it, history is teeming with examples. Hmm.

Is It One of the 100 Greatest Books of All Time?

Your guess is as good as mine. EVEN IF YOU’VE NEVER READ IT.

Favorite Quotes:

There is naturally another possibility that does not escape me, though it would be a great disappointment to have it confirmed, and that is that I am dead already and that all continues more or less as when I was not.

It is because it is no longer I, I must have said so long ago, but another whose life is just beginning. It is right that he too should have his little chronicle, his memories, his reason, and be able to recognize the good in the bad, the bad in the worst, and so grow gently old all down the unchanging days and die one day like any other day, only shorter.

Let me say before I go that I forgive nobody. I wish them all an atrocious life and then the fires and ice of hell.

Read: 2015

If you missed Quick Reviews, Part I, or Quick Reviews, Part II, you can find them here and here.

If you missed the premise behind the Quick Reviews series, you can find it here.

The One Where I Review What’s Left of Faulkner with What’s Left of My Mind

It is with great sadness indescribable joy that William Faulkner and I announce our separation. After nine wonderful agonizing years together, we both feel that it is time to move on. We ask that you please respect our privacy join in celebrating alongside us during this difficult time before we run out of cake and champagne. Our two beautiful children mutual regret and shame remain, as always, our top priority immune to all forms of therapy.

P.S. For the record, it was all his fault.

If you’ve accidentally stumbled upon this blog in the past, you may already be up to speed on my thoughts re: Faulkner. You may already know that I consider him one of my literary arch-enemies, a formidable challenge-within-The-Challenge, and something of a sadistic son-of-a-bitch even on his best days. I’ve made snide remarks about his use (or abuse) of grammar, his sour relationship with Hemingway, and my suspicion that it was, in fact, his cat who did the bulk of the work on many of his best-known novels. I’ve even written up Four Rules for Reading Faulkner as a kind of CPR for all those issuing Do Not Resuscitate orders mid-way through a reckless attempt at taking him down one-on-one.

But I’ve got one thing left to say to him before we part.

First, though, I must offer up some sort of sacrificial review to the literary gods, since I swore to report back (in some form, at least) on all 100 books on The List. The Sound and the Fury, which I compare to an army crawl, is here. But that leaves three more to revisit before we wash our hands of this mess—because, of course, Faulkner was not just “Great” in the eyes of his critics, not just demanding in the eyes of his readers, but also startlingly industrious.

It figures.

Here we go:

Absalom, Absalom! and I go way back. It was, in fact, my first encounter with Faulkner, long ago in my early college years, and the origin story of our Epic Struggle. And OK, that struggle might have been a little one-sided, but it’s hard to believe Faulkner didn’t mean any of it personally. This is some sick, Saw-level shit. Here’s the Absalom, Absalom! excerpt I shared in my Four Rules post:

I can see him corrupting Henry gradually into the purlieus of elegance, with no foreword, no warning, the postulation to come after the fact, exposing Henry slowly to the surface aspect–the architecture a little curious, a little femininely flamboyant and therefore to Henry opulent, sensuous, sinful; the inference of great and easy wealth measured by steamboat loads in place of a tedious inching of sweating human figures across cotton fields; the flash and glitter of a myriad carriage wheels, in which women, enthroned and immobile and passing rapidly across the vision, appeared like painted portraits beside men in linen and a little finer and diamonds a little brighter and in broadcloth a little trimmer and with hats raked a little more above faces a little more darkly swaggering than any Henry had ever seen before: and the mentor, the man for whose sake he had repudiated not only blood and kin but food and shelter and clothing too, whose clothing and walk and speech he had tried to ape, along with his attitude toward women and his ideas of honor and pride too, watching him with that cold and catlike inscrutable calculation, watching the picture resolve and become fixed and then telling Henry, ‘But that’s not it. That’s just the base, the foundation. It can belong to anyone’: and Henry, ‘You mean, this is not it? That it is above this, higher than this, more select than this?’: and Bon, ‘Yes. This is only the foundation. This belongs to anybody.’: a dialogue without words, speech, which would fix and then remove without obliterating one line the picture, this background, leaving the background, the plate prepared and innocent again: the plate docile, with that puritan’s humility toward anything which is a matter of sense rather than logic, fact, the man, the struggling and suffocating heart behind it saying I will believe! I will! I will! Whether it is true or not, I will believe! waiting for the next picture which the mentor, the corruptor, intended for it: that next picture, following the fixation and acceptance of which the mentor would say again, perhaps with words now, still watching the sober and thoughtful face but still secure in his knowledge and trust in that puritan heritage which must show disapproval instead of surprise or even despair and nothing at all rather than have the disapprobation construed as surprise or despair: ‘But even this is not it’: and Henry, ‘You mean, it is still higher than this, still above this?’

Please note that in Faulkner Land—Yoknapatawpha County, or the Ghastliest Place on Earth—all of the above is one sentence.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading Faulkner, it’s that with every Epic Struggle comes an Epic But. Usually the But goes something like, “But it’s so rewarding!” “But you’ll feel so much better afterwards!” “But it’s totally worth it!” I know you won’t believe that, though, not after seeing the savage beast of a sentence above. No, Faulkner is not exactly what I would call rewarding, BUT he is what I would call gratifying. And Absalom, Absalom! has its unfair share of gratifying moments. (You’ll see for yourself, later, when we reach my Favorite Quotes.)

Faulkner’s ninth novel, Absalom, Absalom! (1936) is the story of one Thomas Sutpen, whose life mirrors the rise and fall of the American South in the Civil War era. Sutpen sets out to establish a powerful dynasty in Jefferson, Mississippi, but can’t shake the dark secrets lurking in his past. (By dark, I mean, of course, black. This book is full of racists.) Told out of sequence by a diverse cast of characters from multiple generations and with more or less distant connections to the Sutpen family, Absalom, Absalom! is one of the most confusing, laborious, and fascinating classics I’ve come across in The Challenge. It has been called the best Southern novel of all time and contributed to Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature. It also contains a 1,292-word sentence that earned an entry in the 1983 Guinness Book of World Records.

So, yeah, we might have to come up with some new superlatives for this book. Backbreaking-est? Punishing-est? Surpassing-est? Faulkner-iest?

Let’s keep working on it in our spare time.

Remember what I said about the Epic But? Well, some Epic Buts are more predictable than others. I’d pretty much resigned myself to my Epic Struggle with Faulkner after The Sound and the Fury and Absalom Absalom!, only to receive another curveball to the face—another Epic But—in the form of Light in August.

Far from being another trek through the word jungles that flourished in Faulkner’s fertile mind, Light in August (1932) was more of a stroll through the countryside—pleasant, fresh, and invigorating. Sure, it’s about the decapitation of an abolitionist woman and the manhunt for her killer. But it’s also a love story, a study of race and identity, a Southern gothic influenced by history and mystery, and—most importantly—highly accessible in terms of style (at least, compared to Faulkner’s other novels). It’s the only one out of all four novels (Faulkner appears more often than any other author on The List) that I actively enjoyed, if only because it felt less like a hammer to the skull. It left me, in fact, to wonder if Faulkner thought it best for the two of us to apologize, shake hands like gentlefolk, and call time on our by-now-lukewarm rivalry.

But just to be safe, I kept one wary eye on him.

Last up was As I Lay Dying (1930). I listened to it on audiobook for reasons I have since forgotten. Fortunately, audiobook proved to be a format well-adapted to the story, which follows the many perspectives of the Bundren family as they transport their mother’s corpse to Jefferson, Mississippi (her hometown and requested burial ground). Unfortunately, the cover image that graced my Moto G for the duration of As I Lay Dying fueled countless nightmares:

A neighbor to Light in August in terms of style, As I Lay Dying is a much more straightforward read than either Absalom, Absalom! or The Sound and the Fury—but it lacks their coquettish intrigue and chaotic vitality. Three novels later, I’d come to expect a certain… well, sound and fury from Faulkner’s heavyweight imagination, and this book didn’t even put up a fight. Anticipating, once again, an Epic Struggle, I was left with yet another Epic But.

And this time, for the very first time, as dusk crept up on The Challenge, Faulkner left me disappointed.

So what was it, you ask—the last thing I want to say to Faulkner before we bury our firearms, turn about-face, and march on forever toward separate horizons?

A soldier’s farewell, of course: Good-bye. Good luck. And see you in Hell.

Because I have a feeling—a tickling suspicion—that we’ll meet again someday.

Old enemies friends always do.

Are They Four of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I would never have admitted this during my reading, but in retrospect—and from, now, a great distance—Faulkner brought something unique to The Challenge, something unprecedented and unrivaled.

…Which must be why, then, he has a habit of making his reader the adversary.

Favorite Quotes:

Absalom, Absalom!

But that our cause, our very life and future hopes and past pride, should have been thrown into the balance with men like that to buttress it—men with valor and strength but without pity or honor. Is it any wonder that Heaven saw fit to let us lose? 

Perhaps I couldn’t even have wanted more than that, couldn’t have accepted less.

I waited not for light but for that doom which we call female victory which is: endure and then endure, without rhyme or reason or hope of reward—and then endure.

Don’t talk to me of love but let me tell you, who know already more of love than you will ever know or need.

I now believe that you and I are, strangely enough, included among those who are doomed to live.

I will tell you what he did and let you be the judge. (Or try to tell you, because there are some things for which three words are three too many, and three thousand words that many words too less, and this is one of them. It can be told; I could take that many sentences, repeat the bold blank naked and outrageous words just as he spoke them, and bequeath you only that same aghast and outraged unbelief I knew when I comprehended what he meant; or take three thousand sentences and leave you only that Why? Why? and Why? that I have asked and listened to for almost fifty years.)

That was the miscast summer of my barren youth which (for that short time, that short brief unreturning springtime of the female heart) I lived out not as a woman, a girl, but rather as the man which I perhaps should have been. 

There is that might-have-been which is the single rock we cling to above the maelstrom of unbearable reality.

And then one afternoon—oh there was a fate in it: afternoon and afternoon and afternoon: do you see? the death of hope and love, the death of pride and principle, and then the death of everything.

I will accept either an apology or a bullet, as you prefer.

Read: 2014

Light in August

She continues to watch him with that expression not so much concerned for the future as suspicious of the now.

I mind how I said to you once that there is a price for being good the same as for being bad; a cost to pay. And it’s the good men that cant deny the bill when it comes around.

Yet neither surrendered; worse: they would not let one another alone; he would not even go away. And they would stand for a while longer in the quiet dusk peopled, as though from their loins, by a myriad ghosts of dead sins and delights, looking at one another’s still and fading face, weary, spent, indomitable.

It is because so much happens. Too much happens. That’s it. Man performs, engenders, so much more than he can or should have to bear. That’s how he finds that he can bear anything. That’s it. That’s what is so terrible. That he can bear anything, anything.

It is as though he has already and long since outstripped himself, already waiting at the cabin until he can catch up and enter. And then I will stand there and I will. . . . . . . He tries it again: Then I will stand there and I will. . . . . . . But he can get no further than that. He is in the road again now, approaching a wagon homeward bound from town. It is about six oclock. He does not give up, however. Even if I cant seem to get any further than that: when I will open the door and come in and stand there. And then I will. Look at her. Look at her. Look at her———

Read: 2015

As I Lay Dying

I told Addie it want any luck living on a road when it come by here, and she said, for the world like a woman, “Get up and move, then.” But I told her it want no luck in it, because the Lord put roads for travelling: why He laid them down flat on the earth. When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it longways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man.

People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too. 

She was watching me. But then, in the eyes all of them look like they had no age and knew everything in the world, anyhow. 

Sometimes I ain’t sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.

Read: 2016