Quick Reviews, Part VI

SongOfSolomon.jpg

#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


UnderTheVolcano.jpg

#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


Nostromo1st.jpg

#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


TomJonesTitle.png

#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


Crimeandpunishmentcover.png

#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

The List’s Biggest Surprises

book-1667826_640

In literature, as in life, our expectations don’t always align with reality. We’re all a little wary of books that seem over-hyped and/or universally praised, and we’ve all found ourselves reeling with pleasure from a book we had every intention of loathing.

The 100 Greatest Books of All Time are full of surprises—at least, in my experience—despite their (mostly) familiar names and (often) widespread reputations. And even when so-called “Great” books leave me feeling disappointed, I’m thrilled that after all this time they’re still, in a sense, waiting to be discovered… by me, and by anyone else willing to try them out for ourselves.

98 books later, these are the classics that most took me by surprise.

Books I Thought I’d Love and Didn’t:

Books I Thought I’d Hate and Didn’t:

Books I Assumed Would Be as Great as They Are Famous, and Weren’t:

Books I’d Never Heard of but Ended Up Loving:

Miscellaneous Surprises The Challenge Had in Store for Me: 

  • The animal narrators were animal badasses.

Gone are the days when I presumed animal narrators were synonymous with schmaltzy maudlit. The Wind in the Willows is a hilarious romp, but there’s wisdom and wonder in the Wild Wood, too. The Call of the Wild is starkly gorgeous and startlingly provocative. Animal Farm is, I’m convinced, how all history should be told—briefly, and in allegory. And Charlotte’s Web is a quiet assault on the emotions, profound in its simplicity.

  • The big, bad books used to terrify adolescents aren’t as tough as they’d like to think.

In Search of Lost Time is monstrously long, sure—but it’s more than readable if you’ve got the time. The same goes for Anna Karenina and MiddlemarchThe scariest classics are the ones you’ve never heard of, lurking in the shadows of our literary closets: Tristram Shandy comes to mind, as does Absalom, Absalom! and Malone Dies.

On the other hand, The Sound and the Fury, Ulysses, and Moby-Dick have earned their infamy (and then some).

  • To a certain extent, the classics are more alike than they are different.

Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and The Awakening all have essentially the same plot: Depressed woman has an affair and then kills herself. The suicide methods differ, at least. But if there’s a formula for “classic” status, I suspect it would look something like Social Criticism + Religious Criticism + Adultery + Suicide, with liberal references to other classics.

Gold, silver, and bronze medals for the Most Unique Classics go to Malone Dies, Things Fall Apart, and The Trial, respectively. Finnegans Wake wins first prize in Most WTF, a separate category in which Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is runner up.

And, finally, the Greatest surprise of all:

I didn’t think he had it in him.

If books this old and this well-known still manage to surprise me, I can’t wait to see what the rest of the lit world is waiting to reveal. Here’s to 98 books and many more surprises, for you and for me. Happy reading!