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!

#66 Clarissa, Samuel Richardson

Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady (title page).png

To my very great surprise, I felt an immediate and intense bond with the fierce but kindhearted Clarissa this book is named for. Granted, no one has ever tried to force me into marriage with a middle-aged prick, or conned me into living in a house above a brothel, or ordered my arrest on false charges just to watch my spirit break. But this book isn’t so much about what happens to Clarissa as how it makes her feel.

And how it makes her feel is pissed.

Published in 1748 on the heels of Samuel Richardson’s enormously popular Pamela, Clarissa is tremendously long, tediously slow, and stiflingly intimate. But it’s also meticulously crafted, remarkably thoughtful, and endlessly moving. By far the most extensive character study of The List, Clarissa is an epistolary novel of epic proportions: 1,499 pages, to be exact. Letters between Clarissa and her BFF Anna, as well as Lovelace and his BFF Belford, make up the bulk of the narrative.

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Yep: Clarissa‘s the one on the bottom.

When the story kicks off, Clarissa is already knee-deep in a sea of drama. Her family wants her to marry the un-marriable likes of Roger Solmes and, when she refuses, locks her up in her own bedroom. Clarissa’s crush, Robert Lovelace—a well-known rake hated by her entire family—tricks her into running away with him. In an apartment above a brothel, lost in the unholy streets of London, Lovelace schemes, manipulates, and harasses Clarissa into marrying him or sleeping with him—whichever comes first.

Clarissa, more than a little resentful at all these affronts to her reputation and integrity, plots her escape(s) with occasional success but too little haste. Lovelace, a practiced sociopath, calls most of the shots—and although Clarissa manages one final getaway worthy of Lovelace himself, his London minions call for her arrest on false charges and see her thrown in jail. This last indignity is too much for Clarissa, who, after her release, fades out in a slow death. In easily the most satisfying moment of the novel, Lovelace is killed in a duel by Clarissa’s cousin, Colonel Morden.

One of the quickest ways to make me hate a protagonist is for the writer to tell me how much I should love them (see: Isabel Archer, Rory Gilmore). I Just Can’t with the whole “look-how-special-and-superior-this-protagonist-is” Festival of Praise that, by the way, only ever seems to follow female characters. I’m convinced it’s a symptom of the Madonna/Whore Complex that terrorizes classic fiction, and let’s just say I’ve never had much patience for Madonnas.

But somehow my opinion of Clarissa survived even this. Yes, it was annoying to hear every character gush uninterruptedly about Clarissa’s consummate perfection. Yes, I lost count of the references to Clarissa’s flawless beauty, unsurpassed intellect, and “angelic” purity. Yes, I resented the implication that there is one right way to be a woman, and that way is Clarissa.

But somehow Clarissa remains, for the most part, utterly relatable. It’s hard not to identify with a character who puts her every thought on paper with such careful precision. She lays out her emotions, her motives, and her logic with charismatic warmth, showing down even Lovelace’s seductive (if warped) arguments. Indeed, you root for her all the more for being surrounded by villains and lunatics.

Because, of course, while Clarissa is an interesting read, it’s also an infuriating one. Lovelace pressures Clarissa into corresponding with him, tricks her into running away with him, coerces her into living with him, guilts her into spending time with him, violates her privacy, gropes her without her consent, and then, ultimately, drugs and rapes her—and still sees HIMSELF as a victim. He curses her virtue as the barrier that keeps him from what he wants most, even though her virtue is the very thing that attracted him to her in the first place. He is regularly occupied by efforts to “punish” (his word) the people women around him for their every minor betrayal doing anything he doesn’t specifically condone/authorize.

Clarissa, for her part, berates and blames herself for her errors in judgment, views her disobedience as a cautionary tale, and wishes for death. She never gives up hope of making amends with her garbage family, and pities Lovelace almost as much as she loathes him. And then there’s the whole part where she just has to emerge from her final hiding place multiple times a day to go to church, knowing she risks recapture by Lovelace. Just pray at home, Clarissa! Or, better yet, face the fact that God might not be listening anymore.

So, yeah, infuriating. I spent many of Clarissa‘s 1,499 pages with my head in my hands, screaming, What is wrong with you people??? But I know what’s wrong with them. The 18th century is what’s wrong with them. Anna and her mother go from urging Clarissa to prosecute Lovelace in one letter to encouraging her to marry him in the next. Belford excoriates Lovelace for his treatment of Clarissa but doesn’t bother to, like, CALL THE POLICE. All in all, this book is a feminist nightmare: a parade of male entitlement, a showcase of rape culture, and a testament to just how little control women have had, historically, over their own destinies.

Highlights of the novel are the bullshit-intolerant Anna, often referred to as “flighty” or “saucy” (and, on one memorable occasion, “saucebox”), and the darkly hilarious scene in which Clarissa buys her own coffin. Lowlights are everything Lovelace says, does, and thinks, and when Clarissa’s family finally forgives her in a letter that arrives one day too late.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Yes, but I would never recommend it to a friend. This is a book for masochists, written by a sadist.

You’ve been warned.

Favorite Quotes:

I imagined for a long while that we were born to make each other happy: but, quite the contrary; we really seem to be sent to plague one another.

I may venture to say, that many of those who have escaped censure, have not merited applause.

For what are words but the body and dress of thought?

Poor man! He has had a loss in losing me! I have the pride to think so, because I think I know my own heart. I have had none in losing him! 

But love, me thinks, as short a word as it is, has a broad sound with it.

Read: 2016-2017

#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.
  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

Unsurprisingly, Tolkien and I Do Not Share Many Fans

Last night, I saw that my review of The Lord of the Rings on Punchnel’s* had a new-ish comment. A long comment. A MEAN comment (kind of). Since my LOTR review, here and elsewhere, has always provoked more arguments and mean comments than anything else I’ve written, I was not surprised. I went from slightly hurt (how dare he disparage those of us who snark for the sake of it!) to slightly confused (why not go to, say, the New York Times, instead of a rowdy entertainment webzine, if he’s looking for a diplomatic and consensus-driven book review?) and on to slightly amused (I reread my review and rediscovered the LOTR memes. Bless them, oh Lord) as the evening wore on.

I took the time to write out a response today and decided to share it here. I really enjoy discussions over differences in opinion, even if they are mostly pointless. We are, after all, entitled to our thoughts—and no one could ever convince me that those 1000+ pages of Tolkien were anything but miserable.

Here’s his comment:

The past few years, I’ve noticed that young writers on the Internet seem to think snark is a substitute for thoughtful critique. It’s not.

To be fair, Jamie, you did make some valid points. I counted three:

1) Pacing. Yes, it’s a slow-moving tale, especially in the beginning, and a very long book overall. (Note, though, that Tolkien wanted the work split into five books, not three volumes. So blame the publisher for that.)

I especially found the part with Tom Bombadil to be a drag. Was glad they left him out of the movie (except, if I recall, for a possible glimpse toward the end). (In general, whenever the movies left something out, it was a good decision; whenever they added something, it was hackneyed, sometimes ridiculous, and often plain bad writing.)

2) Narrative priority. The long, long descriptive passages could’ve been both more compact, and better integrated into the narrative. Though here, I think Tolkien was just writing the book the way he wanted; it’s as much a descriptive travelogue (in the tradition of great travel stories) about the world he was creating, as it is a narrative of events.

3) The songs and poems. Readers should feel no shame in just skipping over those. Tolkien, although a respected scholar of languages and folklore, wasn’t a great poet.

I’ll address some of the other points here (speaking as someone who’s enjoyed the book but is not a rabid Tolkien fan):

Claim: Gandalf “does precisely nothing”.

Well, he does provide invaluable knowledge, and save the entire party from a Balrog, and save Helm’s Deep, and defeat Saruman, and lead the forces of Gondor to hold the White City. And so on, and so forth.

Claim: Eowyn does nothing but “become a punchline”.

Well, she does kill the Witch King, the most dangerous of those nine undead Nazgul things. And, no, she doesn’t become a punchline. Here you seem to be blaming the novel for one of the many poor artistic choices in the movies.

Claim: Female characters are under-represented and underwritten.

True. But, given that Tolkien (a conservative Catholic academic born in the 19th century) was writing in the 1950s, what do you expect? You could apply the same complaint to the vast majority of literature published before the past few decades (and a lot of current literature, for that matter).

Claim: Long-winded style.

True; but that’s not good or bad; it’s simply a matter of taste. De gustibus non est disputandum. And, again, the style is not atypical of most fiction written before the mid-20th century. I don’t write like that; hardly anyone does anymore. But it has its charms, among them the sense of receiving words from a different time; this works with the presumed gulf of time since the events described. (Tolkien always said he meant Middle Earth to be taken as an ancient age of our own Earth, not as a wholly imaginary world.)

Note that your specific example (“many times half an hour”) is a poor choice. I don’t recall the specifics, but I know the phrase was a deliberate choice, intended to resonate either with an earlier reference in the book, or with the general assumption that half an hour would be a normal conversation, and many times that would therefore be a talk of length and (presumably) import. Once again, this is part of a traditional story-telling style that will of course seem old-fashioned to modern ears.

Well, you see what I’m getting at. Please continue to write reviews; but do put a little more thought into it if you don’t want long-winded, tedious responses from pedantic middle-aged bastards like me.

And here’s my response:

Aww, come on now, where would we be without snark? No Chandler Bing, no Veronica Mars… I wouldn’t want to live in that kind of world.

In all seriousness, I don’t believe snark and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive—but it seems humor and Tolkien often are. I am always intrigued to see Tolkien fans, both casual (like yourself) and rabid (hehe, I love that word), take up arms against every attack on him, no matter how playful. Every time this review has appeared somewhere new online, and every time I discuss Tolkien with an acquaintance, I get the same response: “We can agree to disagree on every other book… but your opinions and impressions of Tolkien are WRONG.”

Why do we rush to his defense quicker than any other author’s? Why do we treat him with kid gloves—as an idol and a genius instead of what he was: a gifted linguist; a pioneer, perhaps; but an average writer? I have faith that Tolkien’s millions of fans can one day cope with the occasional bout of criticism. He certainly doesn’t seem bothered.

To address a few of your points specifically:

My dispute over the volumes is that Tolkien viewed LOTR not as a series (of 3, 5, or 100 books; I’m not picky) but as a single novel. I think the publisher had the right idea, and I interpret Tolkien’s insistence on viewing the work as one novel as snobbish. What’s wrong with a series, if the material lends itself well to this? The real point, of course, is that IF Tolkien was going to demand that LOTR remain a single work, he needed to edit it. As a series, the length is more acceptable.

You’re right about Gandalf (you’ll have to pardon the embellishment; sometimes I get carried away with my boredom) but not, I think, about Eowyn. The “no living man” line DID appear in the novel and reeks of careful foresight. Based on Tolkien’s general disregard for women, I believe it’s safe to say that he “allowed” Eowyn to kill the Witch-king ONLY because it made for a clever (?) punchline. Otherwise one of his maaaaaaany male characters would have done it, and Eowyn would have officially accomplished squat.

On that note, I’m tired of hearing excuses for writers who “wrote what was typical at the time” (in other words, “were sexist/racist/homophobic/etc.”) as if progressive thought were a 21st century invention. Tolstoy, and Flaubert, and Thackeray all apparently thought the most ordinary of women could make for fascinating protagonists (and, obviously, supporting characters), and they came long before Tolkien. There’s nothing wrong with a cast of predominantly male characters unless, as with Tolkien, it validates an exclusively male-centric perspective. It’s hardly a coincidence that most of Tolkien’s rabid fans are boys and men. And, for the record, I absolutely do make this same complaint of literature both old and new—and it’s because I give authors, most of whom have brains, more credit, and I expect more from them rather than making excuses.

Oops… I’ve now also committed Tolkien’s foremost sin with this long-winded response. In any case, I’ve genuinely enjoyed this discussion and want to thank you for commenting. You’ve given me food for thought (my favorite kind!).

*Update: Unfortunately, when Punchnel’s launched their new website design in 2016, none of the shares/comments from the previous version were carried over. It’s lucky, then, that I copied this conversation here, right? (Except, of course, that it’s not lucky at all, because I am a mature and responsible adult who spends her free time backing up her every keystroke.)

#40 Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

It’s the end of the 19th century. European leaders have carved up a continent for themselves, regardless of its native inhabitants and a limited knowledge of the land. The sun never sets on the British Empire, ivory is discussed in worshipful tones, and the Belgian King Leopold has established a reputation for the cruelest and most corrupt of colonial enterprises (which is saying something). And, against a backdrop of imperialist atrocities, Joseph Conrad sits down to pen a nearly impenetrable, wholly ambiguous novel about how gosh-darn confusing—how downright befuddling—it all is.

The numerous and incompatible interpretations of Heart of Darkness make me wonder why authors can’t just write their own SparkNotes. Fierce debate has raged over Conrad’s elusive message to this day. Was Conrad pro-imperialist? Anti-imperialist? A conflicted combination of the two?

Speaking through Marlow, our unhelpful protagonist, Conrad maintains a stubborn ambivalence about imperialist motivations and methods. But his criticism paints Europe as the victim: Marlow suggests that imperialism is degrading to Europeans, drawing them away from “civilized” nations and tempting them into violence. He also argues against attempts to “enlighten” and Christianize Africans, but only because he believes them to be savage beyond saving.

Conrad based much of the book on his own experiences as captain of a steamboat on the Congo River in 1890. Marlow, accompanied by “pilgrims” and “cannibals,” travels up the same river in search of Mr. Kurtz, an enigmatic agent and trading post manager who “sends in as much ivory as all the others put together.”

When Marlow and his companions finally discover Kurtz, he turns out to be totally normal—if you ignore his godlike status and the collection of severed heads decorating his fence posts. The once-idealistic Kurtz serves as a metaphor for the inevitable moral downfall of anyone with access to unlimited power. We can assume that at some point, Marlow is embarrassed about all that time he spent defending Kurtz.

Heart of Darkness has all the trappings of a great adventure novel, but none of the thrill. It was accused by Chinua Achebe of dehumanizing Africans and perpetuating racist stereotypes. And while this criticism is largely valid, it’s worth noting that this novel flatters no one—European or African.

Overall, I’m glad this book was short. I only had to spend a couple of hours navigating its murky depths, literary steamboat that I am. If Conrad’s goal was to baffle readers and generate debate, then Heart of Darkness is a job well done.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It’s kind of hard to tell.

Favorite Quotes:

Their home is always with them—the ship; and so is their country—the sea.

The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.

You can’t breathe dead hippo waking, sleeping, and eating, and at the same time keep your precarious grip on existence.

Read: 2013