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On Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”

3 Feb

Midnight's Children [1981] by Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Children [1981] by Salman Rushdie

Not only did Salman Rushdie’s luminary novel Midnight’s Children win the Man Booker Prize, but it won the Best of the Booker Prize. It’s the Bookerest of Booker Prize-Winners. It’s the  Über Booker. And if that alone is not enough to compel you to read this, then you’re hopeless. Midnight’s Children tells the epic tale of a family intertwined with the fates of India and Pakistan: two nations struggling for independence from years of colonialism. In Rushdie’s unique style of magical realism, and contextualized in an historically tumultuous era, Saleem Sinai discovers his midnight birth–the exact time at which India declared its independence from Britain–imbued on him supernatural abilities and an inexplicable connection to the fate of his nation. The novel is at once bizarre, hilarious, and heartbreakingly real.

“Reality can have metaphorical content; that does not make it any less real.”

Saleem Sinai is living out his life in a pickle factory. He believes he is “falling apart” slowly through growing cracks in his body, and he has to be tended to by a thick-armed assistant named Padma. With death near, Saleem must write his story and, with loyal Padma at his feet, his only audience member, he begins to tell the complicated story of his family beginning with his grandfather Aadam Aziz. Aadam embodies the start of things: he brings back Western medicine to his small Kashmiri village, and so begins the massive shifts of a colonized nation to modern independence. He falls in love with the beautiful Naseem who, at first, only allows the young doctor to treat her multitude of ailments through a hole in a white sheet held aloft by her muscular bodyguards. Aadam woos her and begins a cycle of change as the political climate of India becomes increasingly restless. India, under the thumb of Great Britain, is straining at her bonds.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah was the lawyer and statesman who orchestrated India's independence and the formation of Pakistan.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah was the lawyer and statesman who orchestrated India’s independence and the formation of Pakistan. (Photo credit “yes yes hi”)

Padma, and probably the 98% of Midnight’s Children‘s readership, is impatient for the point at which Saleem enters his own story, but he’s still interested in giving the important back story to the events leading up to his birth and the simultaneous birth of an independent India. Aadam Aziz and his wife Naseem give birth to five children: three girls and two boys. Naseem, soon dubbed with the ominous title Reverend Mother, keeps her home with a rigorous and religious hand. In this house, silence and starvation are forms of punishment. Young Mumtaz Aziz, the middle daughter, finds her escape through a young businessman Ahmed Sinai. She changes her name to Amina Sinai, severing her ties to her past, and the story moves one generation closer to Saleem’s entrance. Saleem’s parents move into the home of a departing British colonialist William Methwold, who sells his house for dirt cheap on the one condition that the new owners change nothing about the house for two months: neither re-papering the walls, nor discarding a hairbrush. The new Indian owners must retain every last British belonging in the house, leaving no room for their own lives. The metaphor is strong with this one.

(Photo by Marcin Wichary)

Saleem grows up in a villa whose legacy belongs to its former British owners. The imprint of the former colonialists is strong and unavoidable throughout his childhood. (Photo by Marcin Wichary)

Then, the moment we have all been waiting for–patient Padma included–arrives. Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight, the exact moment India’s independence is declared. In the same hour, one thousand other infants are also born, and all are imbued with magical abilities and fates intertwined with that of their mother nation, the newborn India. It doesn’t take long for Saleem to realize his power: he can read the thoughts of everyone around him, and ties the Midnight Children together through telepathy. Others can fly, change gender, teleport, or kill people with their knees. The children are spread across the country, spread across socio-economic barriers and tribes, but Saleem brings them together in a journey to understanding their potential. A year later, Saleem’s younger sister arrives. Her rambunctiousness, her untamed spirit, and her strange compulsion for destructive behavior (like burning people’s shoes) earns her the nickname “the Brass Monkey.” For a few dozen blissful pages, Saleem is a boy and the Brass Monkey is a girl, and their childhoods are filled with childlike events. For the two siblings and their cohorts, growing up in the tumult of their struggling new nation is an adventure, but in young adulthood and as the unrest between Muslim and Hindu intensifies, the two begin to involve themselves more actively in their fates.

“From ayah to Widow, I’ve been the sort of person to whom things have been done; but Saleem Sinai, perennial victim, persists in seeing himself as protagonist.”

Saleem finds himself enlisted in Pakistan’s army, fighting against his fellow Midnight Children and against the country bound to his life. The story begins to come full circle when Saleem’s sister Jamila “the Brass Monkey” Singer involves herself by performing from behind a perforated white sheet, making her audience and all of Pakistan fall in love with little bits of her at a time. It is the sign that Saleem’s tale is about to turn back on itself, the entire narrative a massive palindrome that is fated to reoccur for a 1,001 generations of knees and nose and nose and knees. Saleem, embodiment of India, does everything cyclically and backwards: he “gives birth” to many parents as they give new births to him, create new identities and new childhoods; he overturns the power of the colonialist to the colony, from government to its people.

In a stroke of fate, I read the Pioneer Cafe chapter at a cafe in Pioneer Square. I guess working in Pioneer Square helped fate along.

In a stroke of fate, I read the chapter “At the Pioneer Cafe” at a cafe in Pioneer Square. I guess the fact that I work in Pioneer Square helped fate along.

Rushdie uses words to demonstrate the reflective nature of his narrative. He flips words around (“Knees and nose and nose and knees” or “son and brother … brother and son“) in a way that lyrically reminds readers of this constant mirroring. This author doesn’t just create images with his words; his very words are themselves the images. At every moment, Rushdie amazes me with his attention to detail and devotion to the story. From his sing-song waywardness that reads more like a oral retelling to his meticulousness attention to the placement of every phrase, adjective, and ellipses to his tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, Salman Rushdie is undeniably a literary genius.

“That’s how it was; there can be no retreat from the truth. I shall just have to shoulder the burden of the doubter’s disbelief.”

Rushdie changed the way the history of India’s independence was perceived by tying its story to that of a human being. The link of fates made young Saleem Sinai’s life more magical and more wildly dangerous, and it made India’s history less chaotic, more human, and, through Saleem’s narration, readers get to understand the story through the biased and loving eyes of India itself, of a man whose every joy and sorrow was India’s joy and sorrow. And when I say, “sorrow,” I mean it. Despite the moments of levity and glimpses of Rushdie’s enlightened wordplay, this is a story of the pain of existence and the unavoidable loss that comes with gaining freedom.

Read It: Midnight’s Children is on every respectable book list of modern literature, and I read it to mark it off one such list, but it’s worth reading for anyone interested in the historical fiction genre, in the cultures of India and Pakistan, or in the style of magical realism. Rushdie is a top-rated name in magical realism and, while MC is relatively grounded compared to others like Haroun and the Sea of Stories, you will get your fix with the story of Saleem Sinai and his family drama.

Don’t Read It: Between the narrator and the story the narrator tells, Midnight’s Children can be a little confusing. Salman Rushdie’s writing style requires no small measure of attention as he guides readers through the fragmented, repressed thoughts of his characters, and a casual audience may find the layered narrative frustratingly broken. You might be as frustrated as Saleem Sinai’s audience of one, Padma, as she waits impatiently for Saleem to get to the point of his story. You’ll have to be patient for over 500 pages, and for some, it won’t be worth the wait.

Similar Books: Rushdie spends more time telling stories about stories in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which is much shorter and lighthearted than Midnight’s Children. For another beautifully written story of India, though, read the Man Booker Prize-winner The God of Small Things by the god-like Arundhati Roy. Just make sure you bring your box of Kleenex to catch all the feelings.

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On Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”

17 Jun

The Sun Also Rises [1927] by Ernest Hemingway paints a portrait of the Lost Generation--namely, a group of ex-patriots surviving the Modern Age through willpower, irony, and a whole lot of wine.

The Sun Also Rises [1926] by Ernest Hemingway paints a portrait of the Lost Generation–namely, a group of expatriates surviving the Modern Age through willpower, irony, and a whole lot of wine.

Ernest Hemingway–grizzled, über manly, misogynistic, brawling, brilliant writer that he is–has been a strong influence on my life as a reader, ever since 15-year-old LitBeetle picked up A Farewell to Arms because she was really, really bored. Don’t get me wrong: the racism and sexism, the unabashed machismo gets my blood up, and not in, like, a sexy way. Hemingway is a pure and simple dick. I can temporarily suspend my moral outrage,though, because I’m absolutely in love with his spare and simplistic prose. With The Sun Also Rises, I basked in Hemingway’s iconic understated voice, and it left me sighing and staring appreciatively off into middle distance (not to mention left me wanting to drink wine from a leather flask).

In the first four pages of TSAR, Hemingway basically sketches out the entire plot of School Ties by introducing Robert Cohn, a young fighter who bruised his way up in the world and played a lot of football, so I kept picturing Brendon Fraser stalking around Paris with his jerk friend Matt Damon. The Sun Also Rises, though, is told from the perspective of Robert’s friend, Jake Barnes, who coasts through an indulgent, careless life as an expatriate in Paris. He spends his days writing news articles to wire back to America and spends his nights drinking copious amounts of gin, sherry, and absinthe. He is a proud member of the Lost Generation, and he is a mirror of young Ernest Hemingway’s life abroad. Having lived through the most horrific war in human history, Jake and his friends drown their disillusionment in unbridled pleasure-seeking, which seems harmless at first, but sentiments escalate when the setting changes to the violence of Pamplona’s bull fights and when everyone becomes tangled in an icky little love triangle, like you do. Jake’s love of his life, Lady Brett Ashley, is a free-wheeling, free-loving woman who can’t help herself but break a few hearts. Robert Cohn is the Jewish-American writer who vies for Brett’s affections, along with Brett’s fiancée Michael Campbell and Jake’s American friend Bill Gorton. So, I guess that makes it more like a love pentagon. It’s a whole mess and, according to Hemingway, we can pretty much lay blame on the Jew and the woman, obviously.

Here's a cheat sheet to all the characters:

Here’s a cheat sheet to all the characters: Jake Barnes, the self-pitying drunk; Brett Ashley, the heartbreaker drunk; Robert Cohn, the brooding drunk; Mike Campbell, the mean drunk; and Bill Gorton, the funny drunk (and then there’s Georgette, but we left her in Paris).

In Pamplona, watching the brutal running of the bulls and the bull fights, the love polygon gets heated, and all the drunks get to flex their drunky drunk muscles in high melodrama fueled by selfishness and Spanish wine. Jake hangs back as more of a passive, journalistic observer as the plot unfolds. Robert Cohn’s obsession with Brett grows during the fiesta, and so does everyone else’s anti-Semitism. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Game of Thrones, but my heart started racing as the tension built. I fully expected someone to whip out Valyrian steel and start lopping off heads. Hemingway’s hard-boiled, no-nonsense prose drives the atmosphere toward that tension. He builds with spurts of dialogue to move the plot along and rhythmic, repetitive descriptions to set the stage with lasting images.

Hemingway creates a environment that perfectly demonstrates the lostness of his Lost Generation. Jake and his friends wallow in their petty infighting, careless quips, and sadomasochism. At one point, Jake leans out of his hotel window, drunk as he has been for the entire week-long fiesta, and watches a man being gored to death by a bull in the streets below him. The bull’s horns pierce straight through its victim from the lower back and out through the man’s chest. It seems Jake feels nothing at the sight. Brett and the others love the fighting and the danger and even the gore. Only Robert Cohn feels sick to his stomach at the violence, and his sensitivity is one more reason for his companions’ derision. Cohn is the odd man out, the man who can’t participate in the irony and the coldness, the man who feels too much and actually invests himself in people. To the Lost Generation, a culture of calculated abandon and intentional denial, Cohn is weak so he is cast off. And also he doesn’t drink nearly enough.

Even now, Hemingway continues to be a polarizing author. Many readers hate him and his macho style, but he’s still revered as one of the best American authors to date. Tell me in the comments below if you’re Team Hemingway or a Hemingway-hater, and I want to know why!

Hemingway's own trip to Spain inspired TSAR. Here he is (far left) in café in Pamplona sitting next to Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Lady Brett Ashley. (From Wikipedia)

Hemingway’s own trip to Spain inspired TSAR. Here he is (far left) in café in Pamplona sitting next to Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Lady Brett Ashley. (Don’t tell me you wouldn’t hit that.) (From Wikipedia)

“Badly cogido …. All for sport. All for pleasure.”

Read it if … you’re a sucker for terse prose, Modernists, or feeling simultaneously superior and self-loathing about everything in general. Hemingway incorporates the confusion of the Lost Generation in a handful of iconic characters. TSAR is the perfect snapshot of the ruination The Great War and Modernism laid to young men and women and writers around the world.

Don’t read it if … your prosaic preferences lean toward more descriptive writing. Hemingway doesn’t tend to wow readers with flourishes or catchy turns of phrase, and, where other writers are more like painters, Hemingway is a blunt instrument hammering an image home. If the weather is wet, Hemingway will let you know things are wet and they’re damp and everything is wet and glistening with water because it’s raining wetness. If there are soldiers marching down a mountain, goddammit, Hemingway will force you to feel those footsteps in your bones. Don’t read Hemingway if you’re not prepared to be Hemingwayed.

This book is like … Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, which tells a slightly different tale of the expatriate scenes in Paris, only 30 odd years later. Like TSAR, Giovanni’s Room gives us protagonists who appear as cold observers, seemingly unfazed by the self-destruction all around them and yet complicit in it. And, of course, let’s not forget the most obvious allusions to The Story of Ferdinand by  the master Munro Leaf, because, you know, bull fighting.

I'm used to seeing Hemingway as the grizzled, bearded man shooting fish with a machine gun from his boat, but he wrote TSAR when he was only 27, a young journalist in Paris with his whole, epic career in front of him.

I’m used to seeing Hemingway as the grizzled, bearded man shooting fish with a machine gun from his boat, but he wrote TSAR when he was only 27, a young journalist in Paris with his whole, epic career in front of him.

 

On Paul Auster’s “The New York Trilogy”

28 Dec
Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? It doesn’t matter. Start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

It’s never more apparent how brilliant Paul Auster is when you start reading him just after you have finished a mediocre novel. The New York Trilogy is one of Auster’s most renowned works of fiction, and–you guessed correctly!–it’s actually three separate novels. In New York, where all magical things happen, several mysteries are being investigated by several characters, some metaphysical shit goes down, people talk a lot about people talking or not talking, excuse me, my name is Peter Stillman. But all that aside, TNYT is a mystery of mysteries. It is the meta-mystery. It transcends. Best to read it while either completely high or sleep deprived.

City of Glass

The first book of TNYT, City of Glass, follows the story of a writer of mystery novels named Daniel Quinn. The writer answers a call from a wrong number, beginning his adventures as an unlikely private detective who is hired to protect Peter Stillman from a potential murderer. Peter Stillman lived most of his life locked in a pitch black room and being beaten into utter silence. His potential murderer is the father who locked him in the room and beat him. As Quinn investigates the case and tracks Stillman Senior through the streets of Manhattan, he takes on multiple identities, slowly losing himself to his various fictitious selves and falling into the void of the Stillman’s mysterious story.

The first in The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster's City of Glass takes mystery to a new level.

The first in The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster’s City of Glass takes mystery to a new, meta, super level.

Auster’s narrative breaches the fourth wall again and again, wrapping the reader into the absurd plot, too. Along for the ride, you will feel Quinn’s growing panic as his meticulous notes gradually lose meaning and as his life becomes increasingly isolated, distilling to a narrow view of the world of only two entities–Quinn and Stillman–and then eventually just one entity. Eerie but infinitely gripping, City of Glass kicks off the trilogy with a strong start. I don’t know how anyone could stop at just one book the The New York Trilogy.

“For our words no longer correspond to the world. When things were whole, we felt confident our words could express them. But little by little these things have broken apart, shattered, collapsed into chaos. And yet our words have remained the same. They have not adapted themselves to the new reality.” –City of Glass

Ghosts

The second installation opens with an actual private detective. Blue has just inherited sole ownership of his agency from his retiring mentor, Brown. Blue’s first client is a man named White who comes to him, obviously in disguise, to hire Blue to shadow a man named Black. Taking up the case, Blue spends days, then weeks, then months watching Black do nothing but sit at his desk writing. The reports Blue writes to White start telling more the story of Blue’s life than Black’s the line between their lives begins to blur. (Yeah, blurred lines. I said, and now the song will you be stuck in your head like it’s stuck in mine.) But can the two of them continue to exist as essentially the same person in two different places?

The second installation, Ghosts, tells the story of a private detective, Blue, who has been hired by White to shadow Black.

The second installation, Ghosts, tells the story of a private detective, Blue, who has been hired by White to shadow Black. The question is, where was Burgundy this whole time?!

Auster drops some of the character development and detail of the first novel to introduce more themes of the trilogy–namely, the grey area between author and character. It’s the chicken and the egg conundrum: the author and his character. Which came first? Which is more real? Which one survives the other? The New York Trilogy explores these questions over and over again, from different angles and with different names, but the story is the same. A man stands watching another man who watches back. They tell each other’s stories and therefore tell there own. In Ghosts, Auster gets to the nitty gritty, and maybe that means he’s lost some entertainment value, but by this time I was thoroughly hooked.

“This isn’t the story of my life, after all, he says. I’m supposed to be writing about him, not myself.” –Ghosts

The Locked Room

Auster’s final installation is The Locked Room, a title that references both earlier novels in the trilogy, describing a place of solitude, birth, and demise. In TLR, the protagonist speaks from his own perspective for the first time. His childhood friend Fanshawe has disappeared, leaving behind a wife, child, and boxes of brilliant writing. The narrator steps in to publish Fanshawe’s work for him, making a splash in the publishing community, and begins to take care of the missing author’s abandoned family. Fanshawe has both blessed and cursed the narrator’s life. Our protagonist becomes obsessed with finding Fanshawe and ending the curse.

The Locked Room finishes the trilogy with the story a man searching for his missing friend, who abandoned his family and critically acclaimed writing and disappeared into thin air.

The Locked Room finishes the trilogy with the story of a man searching for his missing friend, who abandoned his family and critically acclaimed writing and disappeared into thin air.

“Then I hauled the two suitcases slowly down the stairs and onto the street. Together, they were as heavy as a man.” –The Locked Room

All three novels bring forward the same conundrum: who writes whom? Does the author birth the character or vice versa? Who is allowed to live in the end? It’s a fascinating question. It’s a fascinating plot that Auster can base three novels–and three entertaining novels, at that–on a mystery that is never really solved, and I suppose that’s the point. There isn’t an answer. There is only the question. Well, that’s kind of cheating, but since it’s Paul Auster I guess I’ll let it slide. Now I will need to pick up a copy of Paul Karasik’s and David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel adaptation of City of Glass, as should you.

Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli adapted Auster's City of Glass as a graphic novel.

Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli adapted Auster’s City of Glass as a graphic novel.

On Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho”

12 Dec
Bret Easton Ellis's novel American Psycho is a modern classic, and arguably one of the best American novels written in the 21st Century. Agree? Disagree? When I'm done dry heaving, I'll let you know what I think.

Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho is a modern classic, and arguably one of the best American novels written in the 21st Century. Agree? Disagree? When I’m done dry heaving, I’ll let you know what I think.

The horrific smile and psychopathic caper of Patrick Bateman is a cultural icon, thanks in part to Mary Harron’s film adaptation starring the inimitable Christian Bale, and in this rare case, American Psycho the movie comes close to working just as well as American Psycho the novel. Fight me all you want, people! but I’m standing by this statement. Not to say that there aren’t differences, and not to say that the book can’t achieve some goals where film falls horrifically short. Harron’s film certainly leaves imprints of her gory images on the insides of your eyelids, so thanks for that, but Bret Easton Ellis’s novel drives home the horror of the nation’s favorite psycho in a way that only literature can: with slow, torturous, written repetition (and without the restrictive water wings of the MPAA). 

Patrick Bateman is just your typical trust-funded, Harvard-graduated, Hampton-holidaying, Armani-wearing Wall Street workaholic, pulling in a massive salary for doing nothing in a time in the U.S. where there was too much money to know what to do with. He spends his mornings working out and perfecting his tan. He spends his afternoon guzzling cocktails with his pals and having his secretary screen his calls. He spends his evenings buying dinner in the hottest restaurants with his AmEx Platinum and snorting cocaine in the hippest clubs. He spends his nights hiring call girls and dismembering them. Alright, so Bateman isn’t entirely typical.

Patrick Bateman tries to fit in, but how well can one hide a sociopathic personality and a psychopathic compulsion to mutilate every living thing around you? It's the question all the kids were asking in the '90s.

Patrick Bateman tries to fit in, but how well can one hide a sociopathic personality and a psychopathic compulsion to mutilate every living thing around you? It’s the question all the kids were asking in the ’90s.

Ellis deftly and seamlessly alternates between Bateman’s mundane day-to-day life and his terrifying night time hobbies. The daily routine of Ellis’s devilish protagonist is mind-bogglingly surreal: scenes of Bateman and his friends poring over their Zagat guides for hours, looking for a place to eat, only to end up at the same restaurant they always go to; repetitive instances where Bateman is confused for a number of other built, tan, well-dressed look alikes; dates with every valium-saturated woman but his girlfriend. For pages and pages, Bateman does nothing but analyze his peers’ outfits (two or three or four buttons on the cotton suit, turtle shell or faux wood Oliver Peoples glasses, suspenders or belts, etc.), or catalogue his drink orders (Bellinis and J&Bs and Absolut martinis and Cristal), or reel off in-depth reviews on Whitney Houston’s entire musical career. The absurdity of this version of America and the petulance extreme wealth creates in these characters are laughable. American Psycho is a funny book. And then the next thing you know, this laughable man is playing in the remains of dead hookers (they were “call girls,” but they’re “hookers” when they’re dead). I won’t go into too much detail, because why spoil the fun? but there are nail guns, chainsaws, hangers, rusty butter knives, and little rodents involved. Oh, and an axe.

Patrick Bateman is a psychopathic, homicidal, concrete jungle American–a man whose attempts at fitting in with the norm turn into an obsession of erasing his identity. Eventually, the stress pushes him over the brink of sanity. Ellis, in turn, pushes the readers’ understanding of American wealth and American excess, and more so pushes readers’ understanding of what evil looks like. I experienced as much revulsion toward Bateman’s rich living style as I did in the graphic descriptions of his torture sessions with his victims, because Ellis bludgeons away with imagery of both. In the end, Bateman is a deranged mess, barely holding onto reality, his identity scraped raw under the pressures of his socialite life and murderous urges. And in the end, I was horrified by that socialite life and desensitized to those murderous urges.

You can add "nail gun" to the things I'm crossing off of my list for all of eternity because of this book. On that list, you can also find, "chainsaw, matches, pliers, wire hangers, acid, The Patty Winters Show, and rats."

You can add “nail gun” to the things I’m crossing off of my list for all of eternity because of this book. On that list, you can also find, “chainsaws, matches, pliers, wire hangers, acid, The Patty Winters Show, and rats.”

The world of American Psycho is more American than American and more New Yorker than New York. I can’t say I’m proud to be an American after having read this novel. I can’t say that I truly enjoyed it either. I respect Bret Easton Ellis and think him a brilliant author. The novel truly moved me (toward the toilet to retch) and made a lasting impression, but I’m not sure I would read this again, and I’ll think carefully before I loan it to any of my friends. One thing is for sure, I’ll never look at a rat or a man in an Armani suit the same way again.

I recommend this book to readers who like

a lot of mindless gore (just kidding, it’s not mindless), social commentary, psychopathic murderers

OR

books written by Chuck Palahniuk, Don DeLillo, or Roberto Bolaño.

On Albert Camus’s “The Stranger”

6 Sep
It's a quick read. It looks good on your bookshelf. You really should have read it in high school anyway. Better go get yourself a copy.

It’s a quick read. It looks good on your bookshelf. You really should have read it in high school anyway. Better go get yourself a copy.

When I read Albert Camus’s The Plague I developed a temporary phobia of rats, but I already had a healthy phobia of homicidal sociopaths, so The Stranger (or The Outsider or L’Etranger) was really building on a strong foundation to begin with. Too much “Criminal Minds” late at night. The Stranger is narrated by the cold, seemingly apathetic Meursault, and the story begins with his mother’s death. Camus is the type of writer who doesn’t take anything for granted and just goes ahead and smacks you in the face with symbolism, and if his character is a heartless bastard (*cough* Meursault *cough*), then Camus will let you know it when Meursault doesn’t cry at the funeral, drinks coffee and smokes a cigarette with the undertaker over his mother’s body in the morgue, and leaves without paying respects at her grave. Let me back-pedal. Meursault isn’t heartless. He’s simply highly logical, and death represents a finality that shouldn’t be mourned.

In fact, Meursault’s logic extends to all his feelings, or rather lack of feelings. If he has nothing to say, he won’t say it. If he isn’t sad, he won’t cry, and if death is natural, it doesn’t make him sad. He refuses to make decisions or become invested in anything or anyone. Meursault reads like a regular sociopath, but I think he’s more meant to be read as the model nihilist, at least at the end. Maybe it’s because I just read The Catcher in the Rye, but Meursault is Holden Caulfield all grown up. He grew out of his teen angst, and his hatred of humanity, all that roiling young passion, has simmered down to a dull, listless apathy.

Probably the third best thing to come from The Stranger is R. Sikoryak's Action Camus.

Probably the third best thing to come from The Stranger is R. Sikoryak’s Action Camus.

When he meets his neighbor Raymond, a violent, short-tempered criminal who likes to hit women, Meursault (out of politeness and because he doesn’t care enough) stumbles into a strange friendship with Raymond. But Raymond’s shady dealings get him in trouble with a gang of Arabs, and Meursault simply goes along with him. Then there is a knife and a beach and a gun and a court case and a priest and a really hot sun, but the fascinating story is Meursault’s transformation.

Meursault understands on some level that he is abnormal, an outsider, though he tries to mask his lack of sorrow, remorse, love with consistently good manners, because all he wants is to be “like everybody else, just like everybody else.” Not until he’s faced with his own death does he remember the beauty of the world–the simple sounds of the city nights, the sight of his lover’s shining face. Through his nihilism and through his atheism, Meursault converts, not to God but to the love of life. This is Camus’s way of telling us, “Life is pointless, but live it anyway.” My concern is that all the students who are forced to read this novel in their sophomore English class are going to forever think atheists and nihilists are by default sociopathic murderers. Thanks, Camus, for perpetuating the stereotype of the demonic atheist.

What a stunner! Of course Camus has something to live for: he's beautiful!

What a stunner! Of course Camus has something to live for: he’s beautiful!

On J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”

18 Aug
You probably already own a copy, but if you don't, pick one up. J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is a must-have.

You probably already own a copy, but if you don’t, pick one up. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a must-have.

In some horrific failing of the American public school system, I managed to escape the assigned reading of J.D. Salinger’s quintessential classic The Catcher in the Rye. And not just me but, for all I know, every single student graduating (or not graduating) out of my little podunk hometown in Eastern Oregon, missed out on this reigning member of literary canon. I ought to write a letter to President Obama: Mr. President, just how is my generation going to change the future of America for the better if our high school English curriculum doesn’t even include The Catcher in the Rye on its collective syllabus?  Well, we can’t. We’re all just a bunch of goddamn phonies. I really mean it. This copy was even owned by some high school freshman named Cheryl. Even 14-year-old Cheryl isn’t as phony as me. (Good thing, too, she went and used a blue highlighter on every single name in the goddamn book, other wise I’d never have made it through to the multiple choice exam at the end.)

At this point, it’s safe to say there’s something seriously wrong with me because this novel was absent from my most formative years of psychological development. On the other hand, you know, Mark David Chapman. Chapman cites TCintR as an inspiration to assassinate musical legend John Lennon on December 8, 1980, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to read Salinger’s novel without feeling the additional weight of this knowledge.

Lennon's soon-to-be assassin receives an autographed album first. Chapman used The Catcher in the Rye as his manifesto, even calling himself Holden. Chapman was obviously tormented by his love and hatred of pop culture, too, and because of this, destroyed a cultural icon.

Lennon’s soon-to-be assassin receives an autographed album first. Chapman used The Catcher in the Rye as his manifesto, even calling himself Holden. Chapman was obviously tormented by his love and hatred of pop culture, too, and because of this, destroyed a cultural icon.

Even before he became the muse of Lennon’s murderer, Holden Caulfield must have been a daunting character to readers. He is a troubled, angst-driven teen with a chronic problem of getting expelled from high-society prep schools. If it isn’t his failing grades or lack of interest in academic structures, it’s his loathing of his peers that sends Holden packing to yet another boys’ boarding institution.

We can all sympathize with kids who don’t fit in with the horrors of high school, but Holden also happens to be a compulsive liar, hypocritical, self-deprecating but hopelessly narcissistic, and most of all self-loathing. Holden plods through his spite of society and almost eloquently revels in the disgust he holds for all the phonies and hypocrites around him–the people who remind him of himself. In brief moments, you, the reader, experience the shear passion and love Holden has for the world and from humanity, before descending back into the wonderful, colloquial rant of bitterness and pain. He can’t escape the intensity of his emotions. His attitude is pretty much summed up in one quote: “So I took a cab. I didn’t want to, but I did.” In the end Holden is just as much if not more of a hypocrite as everyone he hates and loves so virulently. It is himself he hates and loves so virulently.

(Goddamn awesome illustration by MadLibbs)

“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.” Holden hates the game (and the player, just so we’re clear). (This goddamn awesome illustration by MadLibbs just kills me.)

Despite Holden’s hatred of film (among other things), or perhaps because of it, my first impulse was to cast him for a film adaptation. The first person who came to mind was Shia Labeouf, if only because I can so clearly imagine him saying, “goddamn,” 265+ times in the course of a few days.

Go ahead. I dare you. Tell me he doesn't look the part.

Go ahead. I dare you. Tell me he doesn’t look the part.

On James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room”

31 Jul
Go pick up a copy, and read it now. Just make sure you bring tissue for your eyes and scotch for your irreparably broken heart.

Go pick up a copy, and read it now. Just make sure you bring tissue for your eyes and scotch for your irreparably broken heart.

How does one even begin to talk about Giovanni? I’m so overwhelmed still, and I can confidently say, that Giovanni’s Room is my favorite book of 2013 so far … maybe. This novel speaks to James Baldwin’s ever-present awareness of his foreignness, his separateness, his Otherness. Giovanni’s Room is one of the truest most tragic novels I’ve read in a long time because it speaks to my sense of Otherness, too.

Baldwin’s protagonist, David, is an American ex-patriot in Paris (obviously, because American expats go to France, French expats go Algeria, German expats go to Argentina, and everyone else has to stay home), and it’s the mid-twentieth century. David’s middle-class family and its thinly veiled dysfunction drives him away to “find himself,” and, in Paris, he thinks that he has. It’s in his voice, then, that we are told, “I am too various to be trusted.” Whenever I read a line like that, my response is, “This is going to be awesome!” Through our untrustworthy narrator, we learn about gay life in the most romantic of cities, because David, engaged to fellow American Hella, can’t help but feel there’s a hole deep inside of him that needs to be filled … yes, a hole. And in a seedy gay bar, David–just maybe–finds himself, because there is Giovanni, the lusty, teasing, life-loving Italian bartender. (What is it about bartenders? Can someone answer me that? Is it because they can get you drunk and give you their love and all you have to give them is the tip?)

I want Ryan Gosling to be David in the upcoming hypothetical film adaptation. He's perfectly brooding, and Drive proves he can be ambivalent, emotionally cold. And I'm not opposed to Emma Stone as Hella, while we're at it. Who would be our Giovanni, though??

Ryan Gosling would be the perfect David in the upcoming hypothetical film adaptation. He’s perfectly brooding and quintessentially American. Drive proves he can be more than some pretty pecs: he can be ambivalent and emotionally cold. And I’m not opposed to Emma Stone as Hella, while we’re at it. Who would be our Giovanni, though?!

While Hella takes her own self-finding trip through Spain (apparently the land of wine, gin fizz, and gorgeous eighteen-year-old boys), David forays into the Eden of Giovanni’s room (I said it!), and briefly tastes the possibility of happiness. But, according to David’s patron and “uncle” Jacques, “Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden.” David finds the poisoned apple of resentment in that garden; he finds that the line between love and spite isn’t a line at all, but a mere wisp of smoke curling in the slightest breeze; he finds in himself “a hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots.”

Giovanni becomes David’s other life and represents everything David could have been, almost was, wants to be–and this room that’s constantly in transition is the only safe space for a person so tangential, so very vagrant. But David knows he can’t stay, or rather, he knows the price he’ll pay for staying. Hella looms outside of the story line for much of the time, but she is the shade that reminds David that he isn’t strong enough to stay in the sunlight. As David grows more resistant, as he panics with the possibility of his doom, Giovanni’s room transforms–not into the quaint Eden Giovanni always wanted it to be, but David’s tomb. David must choose between Giovanni’s claustrophobic, dirty, secretive, freeing, dooming room in a constant but futile state of reinventing itself, and the familiar but dark room that is Hella (read, “normality” or “heteronormativity”). David tries to make both rooms feel like home, but his problem is he’s rejected the very idea of “home” from the beginning.

Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.

Again and again, David is forced to make difficult decisions. In a time when homosexuality was even more risque than today (but surprisingly, not that much more), when accepting and pursuing his love for Giovanni would mean an incredible suffering and when denying it would mean an incredible suffering, David simply cannot win. At first, I despised David for his ambivalence, thought him cruel in his indecision, but I realized that most people have to make these choices, and I certainly have.

James Baldwin knows David and Giovanni's suffering firsthand. He endured prejudices against Black Americans, against gay men, and against gay Black American men. But he got a stamp for it, so there's that going for him.

James Baldwin knows David and Giovanni’s suffering firsthand. He endured prejudices against Black Americans, against gay men, and against gay Black American men. But he got a stamp for it, so there’s that going for him.

You can tell Baldwin loves people. He loves them and knows them in ways a lot of writers (distant or clinical or spiteful or patronizing or aloof writers) don’t. It’s in the way he made David so contemptible and so universal. It’s in the way he introduces Hella at the end of the novel and she is still as full and powerful as any other character. Baldwin is at once so masterful and yet so accessible. I want to devour his writing–all of it–or maybe it’s more like drinking it in, imbibing. Well, if you hear that I have figuratively died from metaphorical, literary alcohol poisoning, you’ll know why.