Before you read the book:
I felt before reading it that Revolutionary Road (1961) was going to be one of those books that is an experience to read. Because I’d already put the book in such high esteem, I put off reading it, either to prolong my anticipation and leave it as a big reward for some future date or to protect my unsubstantiated preconception and avoid being let down. But since Sam Mendes has opted to reunite his wife Kate with Leo for a film adaptation of this book for awards season, I finally pulled it out to read before my mind was tainted by previews, critiques, hype, awards, etc., not to mention the film itself (I’m a big fan of good film, by the way, just not as big a fan as I am of good books and the freedom they provide the audience). Also, I always like the illusion that I stumbled on to a masterpiece in isolation, and I’m always disappointed when I’m about to enjoy something that suddenly becomes a phenomenon - or a flop.
It’s 1955 in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City. This is a period and place that is still idealized ad naseum, but what we get here is a fine glimpse at the underside during the Age of Anxiety. In one of the most fantastic first chapters I’ve ever read, Yates presents a very pleasant community scene: the Laurel Players are about to perform the play The Petrified Forest. It’s been a lot of work. Here are the first, fantastic lines:
The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking over the footlights of an empty auditorium. They hardly dared to breathe as the short, solemn figure of their director emerged from the naked seats to join them on stage, as he pulled a stepladder raspingly from the wings and climbed halfway up its rungs to turn and tell them, with several clearings of his throat, that they were a damned talented group of people and wonderful group of people to work with.
“It hasn’te been an easy job,” he said, his glasses glinting soberly around the stage. “We’ve had a lot of problems here, and quite frankly i’d more or less resigned myself not to expect too much. Well, listen. Maybe this sounds corny, but something happend up here tonight. Sitting out there tonight I suddenly knew, deep down, that you were all putting your hearts into your work for the first time.”
The play (such an apt motif with which to begin this book – both the play chosen and the play as a general endeavor) doesn’t turn out so well as expected. All of the players – not to mention the community – are disappointed. April Wheeler, whom we watch wilt on stage, is humiliated. Her husband Frank, whose knuckles are cracked and red from sucking on them nervously throughout the performance, finds April dressing down alone backstage.
He closed the door and started toward her with the corners of his mouth stretched tight in a look he hoped would be full of love and humor and compassion; what he planned to do was bend down and kiss her and say “Listen: you were wonderful.” But an almost imperceptible recoil of her shoulders told him that she didn’t want to be touched, which left him uncertain what to do with his hands, and that was when it occurred to him that “You were wonderful” might be exactly the wrong thing to say – condescending, or at the very least naive and sentimental, and much too serious.
“Well,” he said instead. “I guess it wasn’t exactly a triumph or anything, was it?”
This sets off what was probably the most painful part of the book for me. There are a lot of almost imperceptible movements and tones that eventually pull Frank and April into an awful fight on the side of the road, illuminated by passing carlights. Yates makes us sit through all of it – excruciating!
The book proceeds to enter the intimacy of the Wheeler home. April opts to sleep on the couch, confusing their two young children, whose initial steps into the Wheeler family have a tragic tinge all its own. Here is a passage the morning after the fight. Frank is digging a hole, stewing silently about the past:
And I didn’t even want a baby, he thought to the rhythm of his digging. Isn’t that the damnedest thing? I didn’t even want a baby any more than she did. Wasn’t it true, then, that everything in his life from that point on had been a succession of things he hadn’t really wanted to do? Taking a hopelessly dull job to prove he could be as responsible as any other family man, moving to an overpriced, genteel apartment to prove his mature belief in the fundamentals of orderliness and good health, having another child to prove that the first one hadn’t been a mistake, buying a house in the country because that was the next logical step and he had to prove himself capable of taking it. Proving, proving; and for no other reason than that he was married to a woman who had somehow managed to put him forever on the defensive, who loved him when he was nice, who lived according to what she happened to feel like doing and who might at any time – this was the hell of it – who might at any time of day or night just happen to feel like leaving him. It was as ludicrous and as simple as that.
But the book does not become an extended fight between man and wife, sometimes using children as leverage. Just as I was beginning to get drained by their battle, Frank and April got tired of it too (and we’re only at the beginning). They are tired of a lot of things. First and foremost, creating the impression that they are part of the community in which they reside. They know they are superior.
Intelligent, thinking people could take things like [the failed play] in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were.
In a desperate act to solve the problems in their marriage, Frank and April decide it’s time to release themselves from the suffocation of American suburbs and move to Paris, where April is going to work so Frank has a chance to discover himself. With tenderness and intimacy Frank and April begin their fragile plans. The book is not, then, entirely devoid of hope. Which makes it all the more crushing.
All of this is not to suggest that Frank and April are merely victims. They instigate plenty of their troubles. They are selfish. They use their children as leverage in fights. They never quite get their footing, but partially that is because they are too proud to do what it would take. Yet we care for them.
The plot itself is excellent as a whole, but individual parts of it are not necessarily unique. That’s not to say that each individual part is not rewarding. On the contrary, Yates’s writing is a reward in and of itself. His ability to make the reader and characters intimates is masterful. I felt their pain, not because I was recalling my own experience but because I felt like I was there, in their room. When they shouted, it hurt my ears and made my breathing shallow, my shoulders tense. I also felt hope at the sight of an unexpected smile. Furthermore, Yates does this with straightforward, unassuming prose. The passages I pulled above have nothing in them that calls attention to the skill of the author. They are simple, yet poignant. You’ll notice that I quoted large portions – I wanted to keep going! The words flow, always disclosing more, always moving, constantly both confirming the meaning of the last sentence even while it subverts our expectations.
It was a wonderful experience, and the story is beautiful - but who can say why? I’m not sick enough to want to involve myself in, say, my neighbor’s pain just for the experience. I’m not sure why when a writer succeeds in presenting it like this, I enjoy the experience so intensely. My guess is that it’s partially because Yates, in this book, also manages to uncover the tenderness between Frank and April, two vulnerable people who depend upon each other for their happiness. All it takes to suck the energy out of Frank’s day is a sour look from April. I’m not saying this is because her happiness is his prime concern; I know it is because he fears the ensuing battle and what it does to him. Nevertheless, when one encroaches this closely to the most intimate aspects of family relationships, one cannot help but feel for these people, despite how ugly they can be towards each other – perhaps because of how ugly they can be towards each other. Against such a backdrop as Revolutionary Road, tenderness and vulnerability come out in sharp relief. Perhaps that’s what’s so attractive to me.
It’s a painful book that indeed evokes reverential silence, both for the characters and for the author.
After you read the book:
I completely expected the ending of this book, but not the manner in which it was presented. Yates leaves the Wheelers completely and allows the side characters – the Campbells and the Givingses – to finish the story. But this was not just a narrative technique. In doing this, Yates expands the story greatly, moving from one tragic family circumstance to another – and then to that painful final scene where Mr. Givings turns off his hearing aid. It would have been powerful to end it at, say, the hospital. But by pushing the narrative onward, in such a simple yet profound way, Yates shows again his incredible skill and control.
One question I have, though: since Frank obviously doesn’t feel any moral problem with an abortion, why is he against April’s getting one? Was it to lock April into the role he wanted her to play? Did his masculinity demand it? Or was it because, while April was unique in the suberbs, Frank never was?
Before you read the book:
My wife noticed that a few of my recent reads have the word “American” in the title, so when I presented her with a few of the books I was considering for my next read, she did not hesitate to choose The Quiet American (1954). I complied, and I’m glad I did. Greene is still new to me (I know, and I like to think I’m well read – this type of situation pulls me back to reality). It was only a few months ago I had my first experience with Graham Greene in his short The Tenth Man. While I liked that novel quite a lot, I was hoping for more. I got it here.
The Quiet American takes place in Vietnam in the early 1950s, not long before the French gave up their colonial dominion. America was warming up to take the baton. However, attention was still being paid primarily to Korea. From my own under-aged perspective, it doesn’t seem that Vietnam was a large worry at this point. The book appears to have been written in retrospect, a decade or two later than 1955, already knowing what was going to happen in Vietnam. As it was written in 1955, however, The Quiet American is incredibly prescient and equally devestating.
The narrator is Thomas Fowler, an older-than-middle-aged British reporter who has been in Vietnam covering the conflict between the French and the Soviet-supported Viet Minh for some years. Thomas has found a degree of contentment in cynicism and neutrality. His ability to avoid any passionate mixup in the battle is strengthened by the fact that he has a beautiful mistress named Phuong who packs his pipe with opium every night before surrendering her body to him. He would like to marry Phuong to secure her presence, but back home in England he has a wife who is staunchly Catholic. However, for the time being, his relationship with Phuong provides him with all of the satisfaction he cares for anymore, so he can distance himself – somewhat – from other conflicts.
Enter the quiet American, Alden Pyle (whom Thomas cannot call by his first name, liking the associations of Pyle too much). Pyle is that unfortunate combination of idealism and ignorance and Congressional support. He has a plan for Vietnam: defeat the Viet Minh by supporting insurgent groups (easy enough), install a leader from the insurgent group, and establish a democracy meant to quash the growth of Communism. That is eerily prescient for how things would be ten years – oh, and (astonishing), even fifty years later.
Pyle was very earnest and I had suffered from his lectures on the Far East, which he had known for as many months as I had years. Democracy was another subject of his – he had pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world.
Fowler doesn’t want to pick a side in the conflict, but Pyle honor-bound one day comes to tell Fowler that he has fallen in love with Phuong and will begin to pursue her hand (she and Fowler aren’t married, after all). It’s not just that he has fallen in love with Phuong; he has fallen in love with saving her, thinking he’s protecting her interests. Vietnam, apparently, wasn’t a good place for a virtuous woman to transition into adulthood. Fowler and Pyle have several conversations about Phuong, some amusing, all interesting (showing that the book has more to it than political intrigue – Greene’s got excellent control, style, and timing):
Suddenly I couldn’t bear his boyishness any more. I said, “I don’t care that for her interests. You can have her interests. I only want her body. I want her in bed with me. I’d rather ruin her and sleep with her than, than . . . look after her damned interests.”
He said, “Oh,” in a weak voice, in the dark.
I went on, “If it’s only her interests you care about, for God’s sake leave Phuong alone. Like any other woman she’d rather have a good . . .” The clash of a mortar saved Boston ears from the Anglo-Saxon word.
A lot younger, a lot wealthier, with no wifely baggage at home, Fowler knows Pyle has a strong chance of winning Phuong from him. After all, Fowler doesn’t delude himself into thinking Phuong loves him any more than he can provide for her needs, which he increasingly can’t.
Fowler’s weery, self-reflective tone smoothly goes from his relationship with Pyle to the ugliness of the war. Greene surprised me here. The Tenth Man was ironic, but sometimes the tone was a bit melodramatic and sentimental, particularly at the resolution. I had, with no real basis, pegged Greene as a bit of a melodramatic author. Not here. His depictions of the war and the dead are properly disturbing.
Thankfully, Greene doesn’t lapse into simple, didactic moralism to attempt to resolve this conflict or any other conflict that is going on, despite the clearly allegorical tale. On the contrary, Greene recognizes the inherent complexity and irrationality in each conflict he describes, on a global, local, and personal level. After finishing the book I watched the trailer for Phillip Noyce’s 2002 film adaptation and slapped my head and spit in spite when in just a few of the sound bites the characters reduced the layers of meaning in Fowler’s and Pyle’s relationship with Phuong and with Vietnam down to just a few simple quote. Greene, thankfully, doesn’t go so far as that, leaving the story to work a wonderful, but not a simply reducible, analogy for the involvement of Europe and America in Indo-China during this period. It made me reflect – quietly.
Before you read the book:
As fall approaches I often find myself drifting in a fairly pleasant state of nostalia. This is usually the best time for me to read a book with a slower pace. Thanks to a recommendation from KevinfromCanada, I revisited a book that nicely fits this type of mood: Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (1987). Coming a bit more than a decade after Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for her Waldenesque look at nature and spirituality in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard wrote what some compared to Wordsworth’s The Prelude (it’s no coincidence that both works are linked to Romantic/Transcendentalist works). An American Childhood is Dillard’s coming-of-age story. But this is Annie Dillard we’re talking about here, so this is not just a look at her young life. America’s living Romantic writer is being a tad self-indulgent here, but, as the best Romantic authors, this look at the self leads to something deeper and universal: Dillard is advocating the life of the observant mind. She wants us all to wake up so we can prove Thoreau wrong when he said he’d never met a man who was fully awake – well, here’s a woman who is.
An American Childhood is not as well known as other works in Dillard’s oeuvre, not because it’s poor but because it is different. The set up of this book is unconventional, even for a memoir. The book is divided into three parts which each represent a different stage of Dillard’s youth, or rather, a different stage of her awakening to the larger world. Each part is filled with extremely short episodes (most just a couple of pages) that almost have no connection other than that they happened in Dillard’s young life. It’s like she finishes one episode about rock collecting, takes a break, and then begins another episode about her mother’s sense of humor; the next might go on to discuss insects or boys or church or history. As such, there is no strong force of plot here until the last twenty-five pages or so.
Believe me, though, such things do not matter here – it is beautiful throughout. This spectacular writer is in complete control. I believe it is not an overstatement of this work (or out of context of some of her motifs) to introduce it by saying, Those that have ears to hear, let them hear.
The overarching theme is waking up to the larger world by noticing the small details in the quotidian. This process leads to being satisfyingly engaged with life. It’s a wonderful process, though Dillard alludes to potentially unpleasant, even dangerous, results.
I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.
Her motives for awakening are not necessarily to make a difference in the world. Rather, most of her observations show that this awakening is more for one’s own satisfaction. It’s nice to be in the know. It’s very rewarding to know how a bridge is made, nice to know how insects are classified, nice to know how an adult’s skin doesn’t bounce back to form as quickly as a child’s - and I agree. Feeding the life of the mind is a wonderfully fulfilling activity. This type of curiousity and the observational skills to pick new details out of the ordinary is an end in and of itself. Of course, there is also the implication that one can be a more effective citizen, and Dillard presents how this strange idea comes about in a child’s mind.
We children lived and breathed our history – our Pittsburgh history, so crucial to the country’s story and so typical of it as well – without knowing or believing any of it. For how can anyone know or believe stories she dreamed in her sleep, information for which and to which she feels herself to be in no way responsible? A child is asleep. Her private life unwinds insider her skin and skull; only as she sheds childhood, first one decade and then another, can she locate the actual, historical stream, see the setting of her dreaming private life – the nation, the city, the neighborhood, the house where the family lives – as an actual project under way, a project living people willed, and made well or failed, and are still making, herself among them. I breathed the air of history all unaware, and walked oblivious through its littered layers.
While the book is charming throughout, a lot of the power lies in the last section where Dillard examines the potential downside to waking up, particularly pride and frustration. What is at first a charming look at childhood from an awakened mind becomes an almost rancorous awareness, not of the ugliness in the world, but of the ineptitude of many of its inhabitants – which leads to more excellent introspection.
Some reviewers of this book said that Dillard appeared to be overwriting. They discounted their criticism, saying that the overwriting was forgiveable because the book is still wonderful; however, I’m not sure I agree. Dillard’s excellent observational skills are not failed by her writing skills. Her descriptions are wonderful, and I don’t think she’s straining for poetic effect; for example, this is her young mind’s perception of a nun: “some bunched human flesh pressed like raw pie crust into the holes.” For the most part, her passages are interesting and poignant without using any florid words. The following example is a fair look at Dillard’s fairly simple style, packed with insight yet not with obscure words that call attention to themselves:
It was clear that adults, including our parents, approved of children who read books, but it was not at all clear why this was so. Our reading was subversive, and we knew it. Did they think we read to improve our vocabularies? Did they want us to read and not pay the least bit of heed to what we read, as they wanted us to go to Sunday school and ignore what we heard?
Because this book is the way it is – disjointed, charming, nostalgic, motivating – it rewards rereadings well. There are always new insights or memories to uncover. Besides, because of how clear Dillard is, revisiting it is almost like revisiting your own childhood. This is the type of book that has a collective energy that builds as one sinks into it. Read in great gulps.
Before you read the book:
I know that I recently posted a review on American Pastoral, so you might be getting tired of my posts on Roth (I’m sorry, but they won’t stop soon – he’s now got 29 books) but how could I, after converting to a full-fledged fan of Roth pass up the opportunity to review Indignation (2008) the week it came out? And could the title say anything about how Roth feels in today’s America? And here’s another text-only cover design by Milton Glaser, extending the Roth-Glaser relationship. The book itself is quite quaint and attractive, being about the same size as a trade paperback.
This books is not a novel – not by my standards anyway. It took me less time to read than it takes me for most short stories, and that’s partly because Roth’s prose is so smooth but mostly because the book is extremely short. Though it clocks in at around 230 pages, each pages is larger than usual print, larger than usual margins, and larger than usual spacing between lines. I’m not sure why it has been toted as a novel. That actually might lead to some disappointment because it is simply not deep enough to constitute a novel, especially not by Roth’s own standards.
I have to admit, I’ve been looking forward to this book, even though initial plot blurbs made it sound like many other Roth books: young Newark Jew who is trying to get out from under the tyranny of his father winds up getting into even more trouble. Indignation, though relatively slight, is much more than that.
Here we meet Marcus Messner, a nineteen-year-old Newark Jew who has always been a good kid. It’s 1951, and he’s just completing his first year at Robert Treat University in Newark. He’s loving it. The professors are invigorating. The ideas are flowing. He’s on track to become valedictorian. On the other side of the world, the Korean War is in full swing. Perhaps it’s because his son is now capable of going off to war and dying for his country that makes Marcus’s father become a bit more protective.
Whatever the cause or mix of causes fueling the abrupt change in his previously benign paternal behavior, he manifested his fear by hounding me day and night about my whereabouts. Where were you? Why weren’t you home? How do I know where you are when you go out? You are a boy with a magnificent future before you – how do I know you’re not going to places where you can get yourself killed?
After a night studying at the library, Marcus returns home to find the door locked. His father has ceased to trust his straight-A son and has locked him out of the house as a lesson to not go wandering off to whorehouses at night.
Unable to handle so much protection and distrust, Marcus flees Newark and winds up in Ohio’s Winesburg College, a place that could be even more cloistered and vigorously defensive of its standards. In an ugly twist of historic placing, Marcus is forced to accept all of these standards:
The strong desire to rush off to the bathroom was quelled by my fear that if I did so, I might get caught by a librarian or a teacher or even by an honorable student, be expelled from school, and wind up a rifleman in Korea.
But the pressure mounts. Marcus has altercations with a couple of his roommates. He finds himself suddenly involved in a tryst with an emotionally unstable girl. And underneath it is a bitter resentment of the system in place at Winesberg. He begins to skirt the line leading to expulsion, and even flaunts his unconventional beliefs to an impressed Dean who nonetheless must express his dissatisfaction with Marcus’s path:
“I admire your directness, your diction, your sentence structure – I admire your tenacity and the confidence with which you hold to everything you say. I admire your ability to memorize and retain abstruse reading matter even if I don’t necessarily admire whom and what you choose to read and the gullibility with which you take at face value rationalist blasphemies spouted by an immoralist of the ilk of Bertrand Russell, four times married, a blatant adulterer, an advocate of free love, a self-confessed socialist dismissed from his university position for his antiwar campaigning during the First War and imprisoned for that by the British authorities.”
“But what about the Nobel Prize!”
What makes all of this more interesting is the fact that we already know – and this is not a spoiler since you can find it in many of the reviews already published and in the first few pages of the book – that Marcus is dead, or perhaps on the fringe of death in a morphine-induced coma.
And even dead, as I am and have been for I don’t know how long, I try to reconstruct the mores that reigned over that campus and to recapitulate the troubled efforts to ellude those mores that fostered the series of mishaps ending in my death at the age of nineteen.
We even know how he dies, if we’re paying attention to the not-so-subtle clues. But we’re not sure how he gets there. And even that’s not fully the point. What we get is an interesting look at how history intrudes and overtakes, arbitrarily, a young, basically innocent boy. Rather than focusing on youth and social mores, then, Roth’s theme, as in the past few books, is centered on death and mortality. Unlike Everyman, however, here we see it from the perspective a boy with a bright future, not from an elderly man who has already lived a bitter life.
Unfortunately, I craved a bit of the festering bitterness. Marcus’s character might be indignant, but he’s not cynical yet. He’s a bit too immature to be fully bitter. Mostly he’s responding to emotions that flare up whenever someone attempts to give him direction, like many nineteen year olds. I’m not saying Roth failed to execute what he planned – indeed, Marcus’s voice was very convincingly innocent and unassuming and indignant - it’s just that I was not as interested in what Marcus had to say as I have been in some of Roth’s prior characters.
Still, while the title of the book come from the Chinese national anthem and the book takes place nearly 60 years ago, it was easy to associate both the title and the themes to America’s situation today. That’s a point that is never explicit, but anyone who walks into a book store and sees the title should make the association naturally, even if that person is not aghast when thinking about America’s plight. The book works very well on this level of analysis too.
Basically, I came away pleased but not to the same degree I have come to expect from Roth. He usually succeeds in delving much deeper and being much more nuanced. This book felt more like a quick project, a great exercise in masterful writing but that doesn’t quite live up to its thematic potential (like McEwan’s On Chesil Beach). Still, it’s tightly woven and compelling. I just wouldn’t recommend it to people for their first go with Roth.
Before you read the book:
Richard Hughes is a new author for me. It won’t be difficult to get through all of his novels because he only published four before he died: A High Wind in Jamaica (1929); In Hazard (1938); and only two parts of a planned trilogy of the Human Predicament, The Fox in the Attic (1961) and The Wooden Shepherdess (1973). All four of his books are published by NYRB Classics. I chose to begin my trek through his works with In Hazard because it was published by NYRB just this past month.
After writing his successful sea story High Winds in Jamaica, Hughes was asked to write a book on a recent ship that survived a horrendous hurricane. In Hazard is the result. In a nutshell, we briefly meet the crew and the ship, the “Archimedes.”
What else shall I tell you, to describe to you “Archimedes”? I say nothing of her brilliant paint-work, or the beauty of her lines: for I want you to know her, not as a lover knows a woman but rather as a medical student does. (The lover’s part can come later.)
And Hughes fulfills his promise to describe the ship in technical terms. To his credit, though, this is not boring at all. I don’t know how deep into technical language Hughes delves here and what he omitted, but I found it informative without stopping the story from moving forward. It’s all to describe how unlikely it is that such a ship would find itself unable to withstand even a mighty mighty storm. As the storm approaches, Hughes describes the wind patterns and the science behind hurricane-making. He even uses a footnote to describe the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Again, I didn’t find this to be bad judgment on his part at all. For all too soon that hurricane arrives in full force, and the crew must face up to the challenge and to their own humanity.
This is the best part of the novel: the inner mind of the crew as it reacts to this life-threatening storm. While we never get a lot of information about the characters, we come to know them from the way they hold up. Hughes employs great use of detail to describe the crew members psychology in brief episodes; for example, here is a glimpse at one of the young members of the crew:
It was like conversion – a physical conversion, not a spiritual one, for there was no morality nor resolution in it. It was just a sudden reversal of his physical appetites, so strong that he could not believe they would ever change. A loathing of girls, drink, tobacco; and all wrought by the wind.
Here is another quick glimpse that dives deeply into the character:
Philips, in a curious way, did not mind so much. He said the Lord’s Prayer once, and left it at that. His mind divided into two halves. One half was actually glad. For young Philips, for the first time, loved a girl with his whole soul; and she overlooked him. If he were drowned at sea, she would be told: his death would sadden her a little, even if his life was indifferent to her. There was no true living for him, he felt, except in her thoughts: then his death alone could secure him life, and even life for the few minutes she would give to thinking of him. Like many young lovers, he confused a girl with God: and he could almost imagine her now, watching him, out of the sky; watching him die, and pitying him.
Subtley, as time moves on, the crew moves out of this initial fear. Sleep deprived, their minds begin to play tricks. I want to pull more quotes from the novel, but I liked stumbling on to them, so I’ll leave that pleasure for when you read the book. Some delusions are comical; others, haunting. All show a bit of the psychology of the characters as they respond to the circumstances.
And that brings me to one of my only complaints about the novel. These little episodes are great. But at one time, and one time only, Hughes delves into a minor character for pages and pages. True, in this short, quick book, it’s not that long really, but it felt very unbalanced. Perhaps it was the time, but Hughes uses this tangent to discuss Mao Zedong and the Hunan province. Yes, in a slight-of-hand Hughes manages to bring this back to the main narrative, but it didn’t flow well for me. Furthermore, in these types of passages the characters become disconnected with the hurricane. It’s rather like the ship is adrift and not being thrown up and down by deafening wind and waves. After finishing the book all of this melds together nicely in my mind. But while reading it, it just felt a bit unbalanced.
A final note about style: somehow, despite an extreme use of colons, Hughes manages to make this book feel like it is being passed orally. There’s a great deal of raw passion behind the text – at least, that’s how it felt. Hughes uses an undisclosed first-person narrator. The narrator is omniscient because it seems to know all that goes on in the characters’ heads, yet because the narrator is an “I” we get a more personal feel. I felt more present. I’ve been trying to understand exactly why this is what happened, but I’m failing. It is an interesting technique, however, and the result is something that feels at once disinterested and then disturbingly raw. The final chapter in the book is a great combination. I’ll be moving to Hughes’s other books in due time.
Before you read the book:
I discovered The Things They Carried (1990) years ago after reading its title piece, the short story “The Things They Carried,” which could stand alone and is widely anthologized by itself today. The book itself is a compilation of 22 short stories, but that’s somewhat misleading; The Things They Carried is a single work that should be approached holistically. Indeed, it is the way the stories work with each other that makes them so effective. After a request from Max Cairnduff, I decided to revisit this great war novel to review it here – it is, after all, one of my favorites.
While this book is marked as fiction (indeed on the title page it says “A work of fiction”), that is apparently only partly true. O’Brien grew up where some of the characters grew up. He went to Vietnam and was involved in many of the events depicted in the novel. By categorizing what could be his memoirs as fiction he is not just avoiding the problems that have arisen recently with memoirist who like to put somewhat of a spin on their life. That what he’s written here, though it didn’t happen, is just as true as what did is part of the point of the book. But more on that later – let’s start by looking at the title story, before it all gets complicated by “truth.”
On its own, the short story “The Things They Carried” is an excellent - probably one of the best - works of fiction about war (though I have never been to war and cannot vouch for that part of it). It’s incredibly detailed with little monotonous facts.
As PFCs or Spec 4s, most of them were common grunts and carried the standard M-16 gas-operated assault rifle. The weapon weighed 7.5 pounds unloaded, 8.2 pounds with its full 20-round magazine. Depending on numerous factors, such as topography and psychology, the riflemen carried anywhere from 12 to 20 magazines, usually in cloth bandoliers, adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, 14 pounds at maximum. When it was available, they also carried M-16 maintenance gear – rods and steel brushes and swabs and tubes of LSA oil – all of which weighed about a pound. Among the grunts, some carried the M-79 grenade launcher, 5.9 pounds unloaded, a reasonably light weapon except for the ammunition, which was heavy. A single round weighed 10 ounces.
This partially disinterested manner of presenting details works a devestating tone when O’Brien leads into the next sentence:
The typical load was 25 rounds. But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed outside the Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear.
The piece is wonderfully balanced. As you can see from the pulled quote, the beginning lists the many physical objects and their weight these soldiers are carrying. As the piece goes on, however, we see that they are carrying so much more.
Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its batter. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself – Vietnam, the place, the soil – a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity. They moved like mules.
Though at this point it might appear so, this is not just a long list: each soldier in the troop, though given only a short space, is brought to life by the detail that O’Brien uses to describe what that soldier is carrying. And particularly Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who feels guilty about the death of Ted Lavender, is brought to life in poignant ways. The story drifts around like a dream – or rather, like a delusion brought on by fatigue.
But “The Things They Carried” is not the only thing that recommends the book The Things They Carried. O’Brien is dealing with his own demons through writing, and he’s allowing us to experience this process with him. Here’s what he says at the end of one of the stories:
Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever.
The stories begin to intertwine with one another as O’Brien then takes the reader into a great metafictional treatment of the memoir and especially of writing about war. O’Brien makes a distinction between “story-truth” and “happening truth,” saying at one point that “story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth.” As he explores the nature of story telling, O’Brien freely contradicts events as portrayed in an earlier story, and then sometimes goes on to contradict his contradiction. Though this is a book about his own experience, he remains as ellusive as Philip Roth does in the Zuckerman novels. We don’t know who O’Brien is. But that’s not the point. What we are getting here is an attempt to say something truer than his simple memoir could be, something that adopts the contradictions we find in life when we really stop to think about things.
So, as you probably can see, though this is a book of short stories, it really should be read in its entirety and from start to finish. Though this was a revisit for me, it was still very profound and affected me as much – or more – this time as the first time I read it.
At one point O’Brien writes the following:
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.
I’m not sure if I’m a victim of the lie or not, but O’Brien’s work here is definitely a masterpiece, something that uplifts even as it shows the ugliness and absurdity of war. The Things They Carried was a finalist for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize, which was won by Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. It’s almost too bad both books were published the same year because The Things They Carried just might be the most valuable piece of literature to come from the Vietnam war, and it deserves the timelessness a Pulitzer can bestow.
Before you read the book:
I’m hooked. The more Roth I read the more I’m convinced he is the greatest American writer alive today (and there are several great ones). But Roth – Roth’s books are in another league. Freshly finished with The Prague Orgy (the last book in what Vintage calls “Zuckerman Bound containing The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Prague Orgy) I decided to not move on to his latest “Zuckerman” novel, Exit Ghost, published last year. Instead I chose to finally read Roth’s Pulitzer Prize winner: American Pastoral (1997). American Pastoral also – and I was so happy – includes one of my newest favorite literary characters of all time, Nathan Zuckerman, albeit in a different role.
While “Zuckerman Bound” and Exit Ghost are written about Nathan Zuckerman, American Pastoral is written by Nathan Zuckerman, creating what has to be one of the most sophisticated and effective framing devices in all of literature. The first section “Paradise Remembered” is Zuckerman’s reflection on how this book came about. It’s a beautiful introduction to the themes of the novel that are displayed and flayed and displayed again in a different light and then stripped down with stunning compassion which leads to chilling effects in the last two parts, “The Fall” and “Paradise Lost.”
Zuckerman has aged a little more than a decade since I last visited him (only a month ago) in The Prague Orgy. It’s his forty-fifth-year high school reunion. Events and encounters lead him to reflect on his youth and in particular on his boyhood hero: Seymour “the Swede” Levov. The Swede is among the generation of Jews who were finally able to take full advantage of what America offered; he is descended from immigrants who had nothing, from a second-generation Jewish family that started building up a foundation, and from a father who has built a successful glove making factory. His grandfather and then his father had to work hard, and now the Swede is set up for an easy life; he even takes on the physical features of an all-American boy. Zuckerman idolized the Swede. He was the perfect athlete who was raised to an even higher status since he was enacting these great athletic feats while the country engaged in World War II. As is usual with Roth (but he still surprises me with his ability), the narrative looks at the Swede’s status from many angles: as a blessing, as an insignificant fact, as a piece of nostalgia, and as a curse.
And it all began – this heroically idealistic maneuver, this strategic, strange spiritual desire to be a bulwark of duty and ethical obligation – because of the war, because of all the terrible uncertainties bred by the war, because of how strongly an emotional community whose beloved sons were dying far away facing death had been drawn to a lean and muscular, austere boy whose talent it was to be able to catch anything anybody threw anywhere near him. It all began for the Swede – as what doesn’t? – in a circumstantial absurdity.
Zuckerman has seen the Swede a few times since childhood, and he’s still struck with awe, still a little giddy. One day not long before the high school reunion Zuckerman receives a letter from the Swede asking him to meet him in a New York City restaurant. The Swede’s father has died, and the Swede actually wants Zuckerman to consider helping him write a piece about his father. While Zuckerman would never do such a thing for another person, he is too intrigued by the Swede to say no. Zuckerman hopes to get under the surface of this apparently perfect man who has lived an apparently ideal life.
Only . . . what did he do for subjectivity? What was the Swede’s subjectivity? There had to be a substratum, but its composition was unimaginable.
That was the second reason I answered his letter – the substratum. What sort of mental existence had been his? What, if anything, had ever threatened to destabalize the Swede’s trajectory?
Zuckerman, trying to see beneath the at once humble and complacent veneer, is disappointed. Turns out that at the dinner the Swede doesn’t even go into the piece he wants written about his father. They pass a dull evening together, and Zuckerman, in a sense, gets over the Swede. There is nothing going on under the surface. Unless . . .
Unless he was not a character with no character to reveal but a character with none that he wished to reveal – just a sensible man who understands that if you regard highly your privacy and the well-being of your loved ones, the last person to take into your confidence is a working novelist. Give the novelist, instead of your life story, the brazen refusal of the gorgeous smile, blast him with the stun gun of your prince-of-blandness smile, then polish off the zabaglione and get the hell back to Old Rimrock, New Jersey, where your life is your business and not his.
He knows nothing more about the Swede, however, until the high school reunion comes around. There he runs into the Swede’s younger brother, Jerry. Only a bit of information is passed from Jerry to Zuckerman, but it’s enough. A tidbit about the Swede’s daugher shows Zuckerman how wrong he was to pass off the Swede as just another superficial human being, too ideal to be interesting. As happens at large reunions, Jerry and Zuckerman are separated before Zuckerman can satisfy his curiosity any further.
Though Zuckerman has little to go on, he delves into writing a book about the Swede’s life, focusing on the period of the 1960s and Vietnam and the early 1970s with Watergate, when his daughter has most destabalized not only his life but the life of his wife, the neighbors, the community, and the United States. It is a fantastic, virtuosic plummet into the heart of America.
I can’t remember a book that caused a more visceral reaction to me. Roth does not pull punches and he is not shy about making the reader feel complicit. Because of this, I can’t say I’d recommend American Pastoral to everyone despite the fact that I consider it one of the greatest novels of the last century. It deserves to be looked at with an open mind and with an understanding that Roth is not putting anything in here for gratuitous effect, and the effect is often devestating. I swear, when the Swede encounters Rita Cohen to pass information to Merry I felt like I was there. My mouth went dry. Like the Swede, I too wanted to run out of the room I was in. I felt like the Swede, and I admired Roth even more for his ability to do that. Indeed, Roth, more than any other writer I know of, has the ability to pull me into the emotions the characters are feeling. I feel transported, like the Swede:
The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk.
Another striking aspect of the novel is its treatment of Newark, a city I’m drawn to since I spent a summer working as a judicial intern in the Federal Court, which sits right in the area described in the novel, and I still frequent Newark’s streets. Roth, like Zuckerman and the Swede, grew up in Newark in a time when it had a better reputation. Here we get a gritty, up close shot of the city following the ugly and destructive riots of 1967; forty years later, these riots still affect the city and its abismal reputation. Over the past few years, Newark has been attempting to revitalize itself. It has a classy performing arts center and a brand new state-of-the-art stadium. The homicide rate is dropping, finally. But this scene is still familiar:
Along this forsaken street, as ominous now as any street in any ruined city in America, was a reptilian length of unguarded wall bareen even of graffiti. But for the wilted weeds that managed to jut forth in wiry clumps where the mortar was cracked and washed away, the viaduct wall was barren of everything except the affirmation of a weary industrial city’s prolonged and triumphant struggle to monumentalize its ugliness.
The book doesn’t dwell in the urban areas, though. The Swede has moved from Newark to the rural community of Old Rimrock. It’s a stark contrast: Newark is primarily inhabited by Democrats and immigrants, Jewish or Catholic; Old Rimrock is primarily Republican and inhabited by wealthy WASPs. The Swede’s generation was one of the first to change these stereotypes. With his Irish Catholic wife, the Swede moves thirty miles west of Newark, and allows Roth to explore yet another side of America.
I’ll admit that my proximity to the landscape has made me like this book more than I perhaps would have otherwise, as I suspect is the case with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Still, American Pastoral is more layered than the clichéd onion. In many ways, that layering is the major motif in the novel: there are glove factories, face-lifts, paintings that look like they are trying to “rub out” the paint rather than apply it. We see it in the narrative structure which has a fictional author writing a fictional account about a real person. We see it in the way Roth plays with the layers of time. We see it in the layers of meaning in each and every scene. This is an intimate look at a family that spreads out into an astounding discussion of America and her history.
After you read the book:
The last sentence in my review states that this is a great discussion of America and her history. I’m very curious about how people not from America responded to this book. Was it accessible despite the multitude of historical references? My suspicion is that it is, that the book goes beyond America and touches on topics that are familiar to everyone. I’m not just talking about the interfamily relationships here; I’m talking about the backwards look at a century that promised a lot and looked quite pretty from the surface. But underneath . . .
I have heard from several people that they get bored with the last section. I can understand how that could happen. Instead of following Merry and Rita further into the berserk, Roth moves on to a small neighborly cookout on a holiday weekend. I found it fantastic, the perfect ending. After stripping the Swede’s emotions down to the raw core, Roth then proceeds to show everyone covering their pain up. Dawn is moving on by getting a facelife, a new house, and a new man. This is as much to cover the past as it is to build a better life. It’s a pleasant looking scene with friendly conversation going on between people who despise each other fundamentally. Brought to remembrance that great last scene in Woody Allen’s film against Ronald Reagan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, though American Pastoral was much less comical.
Before you read the book:
I must again start a review with a disclosure (this one very unsettling): I did not finish reading The Northern Clemency (2008); in truth, given the size of the book (700+ pages), I barely started. How, then, can I write a review? Don’t worry; I’m not going to try too hard. I know it’s probably enough to say I started this book and didn’t finish it, but that’s unfair to Hensher. I simply was not in the mood for an overly long social piece that, to me, was written with a great eye for detail but with no sound in the words and no rythm in the sentences. And it didn’t help that I was predisposed to dislike the book. The book had a pretty steep slope to climb in order to convince me it was better than I was expecting. It seemed like a waste of time for me to subject the book to this. While I don’t plan on posting reviews on too many books I haven’t finished, this book ends my 2008 Booker marathon so I thought I should give my reasons for quitting. After my thoughts on the book, I have posted my final thoughts on the longlist.
(This size of book deserves that big an image)
I’m not going to dwell on the plot here because you can get as much as and more than I know from the book’s blurb. Needless to say, I didn’t get to the apparently good scene with the photos or to the frustratingly inaccurate trial scene. I got far enough to meet some of the main characters, and while it was not torture, I was not attracted to anything in the novel either.
This might be a “you had to be there” kind of book. Hensher’s puts in a lot of detail about setting – decor of the apartments, what’s to eat, what are people talking about - which, in my mind, is meant to make readers think I remember that from the 1970s! That is not a bad thing, but it didn’t really work for me, so any charming nostalgia was completely lost. Basically, then, I started reading the book, started finding excuses to put it down because I was not compelled by the characters or by the plot. This plus the strong desire to be done with the longlist pushed me over the edge. I’m not comfortable in this territory, and I don’t plan to make this a habit, but it sure felt good!
I recommend getting your reviews of this book from two other sites. The Asylum, by John Self, didn’t like it in his review; dovegreyreader did in hers. And both of them read it.
Bottom line: When I put this book down I felt an immediate, strong sense of release. It was like getting out of a bad relationship. Only this relationship was doubly bad and the sense of release from it doubly good because it was not a simply relationship with only this one book but with the disappointing 2008 Man Booker Prize longlist.
Final thoughts on the 2008 Man Booker Prize longlist:
Here’s how I would rank the books I read (and I’ll throw in The Northern Clemency too – 1/4 read).
2. The Clothes on Their Back
3. A Fraction of the Whole
4. Sea of Poppies
5. From A to X
6. The Secret Scripture
7. The Lost Dog
8. The White Tiger
9. A Case of Exploding Mangoes
10. The Encantress of Florence
11. The Northern Clemency
12. Child 44
Though I’ve complained a lot about the longlist, I did enjoy on some higher level the top seven books on my list. The top six would in my mind make a decent shortlist, but it’s not strong by any means. I didn’t think last year’s shortlist was that strong either. I enjoyed the books in 2007 too, but found none of them in the same class as, say, 2004 or 2005. In fact, almost every book shortlisted those two years was better to me than any book shortlisted last year or longlisted this year. I hope things change soon. I love the Booker Prize because it has introduced me to some of my best relationships with books. But my love is not unconditional.
I find it particularly interesting to compare this list with my initial reviews. The Lost Dog has turned out to sit better with me than I thought - kind of like John Banville’s The Sea - moving it close to my own shortlist. Also interesting is that the first books I read are mostly at the bottom of my rankings despite my giving some of them fairly positive reviews. And Sea of Poppies is toward the top despite a so-so review. I can tell how as the longlist reading project went on, as I went through one sub-mediocre book after another, it really affected my whole attitude toward the book I was reading at that moment. I wonder how it would have turned out had I read it in any other order. Had I started the whole shin-dig with The Northern Clemency, for example, I at least would have finished that book and probably would have given it a better review just because I was still fresh in my excitement for the project. Then again, I think my ultimate rankings would probably have been about like this.
After you read the book:
Since I didn’t finish the book, I have no idea what to write here. I guess, congratulations! I truly hope you liked it as much as dovegreyreader or disliked it with as many good reasons as John Self!
Before you read the book:
Full disclosure: I’m suffering from Book fatigue, a severe case. I thought only the members of the committee should have to suffer through this affliction since they read 100+ books, but this year I just can’t wait to be over and done with the longlist. The worst part is that this is having a negative effect on my enjoyment of my reading. This review should be taken with a grain of salt because I know that if I had read it at any other time of the year, I would probably have liked Sea of Poppies (2008) more. I’ve tried to figure out where the book failed on its own ground and where I failed it.
Not that I didn’t like it, exactly. On the contrary, it is one of the better books on the list. But I usually have to set myself up for books like this one – longish, omnisciently narrated, morally indignant, historical feeling (both in subject and style). Lately I’ve been reading so many fantastically unique books (to me – and I’m not talking about the ones on the longlist) that this one felt incredibly familiar and run-of-the-mill. It probably doesn’t help that I read Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger earlier this year. The two are alike in style (both have a similar narrative thrust and feel) but they are not alike in execution – when comparing the two books, Ghosh’s ability with words is far superior.
Like Sacred Hunger, Sea of Poppies is a book about a boat: the Ibis, which used to be a slave runner. And like Sacred Hunger, Sea of Poppies spends a great deal of time getting a large cast of disparate characters together on the boat. It is, in fact, quite late in the book before the boat takes off. That’s not a bad thing, by any means, as the coming together of the cast is interesting. Ghosh is very good at setting up a scene, so the locations where these characters originate and then mingle are all nicely drawn up and evocative.
Interestingly, however, the crew and the large cast of other characters are both a strength and a weakness to the book. Some of them are fairly predictable – they are ugly evil and we know their type well. For example, the self interrested owner of the vessel, Benjamin Burnham, who always has a perverse argument to explain why he’s not only right but progressive:
“The Ibis won’t be carrying opium on her first voyage, Reid. The Chinese have been making trouble on that score and until such time as they can be made to understand the benefits of Free Trade, I’m not going to send any more shipments to Canton. Till then, this vessel is going to do just the kind of work she was intended for.”
The suggestion startled Zachary: “D’you mean to use her as a salver, sir? But have not your English laws outlawed that trade?”
“That is true,” Mr Burnham nodded. “Yes indeed they have, Reid. It’s sad but true that there are many who’ll stop at nothing to halt the march of human freedom.”
“Freedom, sir?” said Zachary, wondering if he had misheard.
His doubts were quickly put at rest. “Freedom, yes, exactly,” said Mr Burnham. “Isn’t that what the mastery of the white man means for the lesser races? As I see it, Reid, the Africa trade was the greatest exercise in freedom since God led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Consider, Reid, the situation of a so-called slave in the Carolinas – is he not more free than his brethren in Africa, groaning under the rule of some dark tyrant?”
However, most of the characters have interesting aspects of their past that influence their relationships and actions throughout the book, and they are more fulfilling that the ones we recognize from other books. Strangely, despite this potential – or perhaps because of the potential – I still found some of the characters underdeveloped. But perhaps that is because I wanted more, which is promised to come later since this is the first book in a trilogy.
Ultimately, though, I left the book a bit disappionted. Ghosh is a great writer and this was a great setup for a greater story. As I said above, it is not that this was an awful book. I just wasn’t in the mood for a book where the narrator sounds so Victorian:
But money, if not mastered, can bring ruin as well as riches, and for the Halders the new stream of wealth was to prove more a curse than a blessing.
But that is not the book’s fault. I should have been prepared to take on that kind of writing. Furthermore, Ghosh’s book has pleased me in ways most of the others on the longlist have not. He offers a very detailed, well balanced story that explores a fascinating time in history. His characters are the type I want to encounter again. And so I shall. When the next installment in the trilogy comes along, I will read Sea of Poppies again, on my own terms, to prepare myself for a more immersive experience. I’m positive this trilogy, because of Ghosh’s skill, will stay with me. Sacred Hunger has remained with me, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s not done as well as Sea of Poppies.
And for those of you who are wondering if I’m going to inflict this upon myself again, if I’m again going to take it upon myself to read a long list – probably not. I have learned a valuable lesson here: I must not allow a goal to read books mess up my enjoyment of the books.
John Self, at The Asylum blog, found this book to be one of his favorites of the longlist, and he has given a more positive, and I think more “true,” review.
After you read the book:
Only one more on my longlist, The Northern Clemency. I haven’t heard much good about it, so I’m sure I’ll have an even harder time dealing with it than I did with Sea of Poppies. Once I’m through with the list, this portion of my post will return to what it was intended.