It makes the world go round

The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye.

We are pawns and puppets. We are pawns of economic forces, we are puppets of misery and want. In his groundbreaking novel Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser writes about American capitalism and what it does to its subject citizens. We are pawns and puppets, we make choices but our choices are determined by capitalism and the steel grip it has upon our shoulders. We have basic urges that control us, we want what we see that others have, we want what we admire, what we think we need. We want things we cannot have, and once we obtain them they no longer matter to us. We worship idols, we are impressionable as lambs.

Dramatizing the power that money, or want of money, exerts over us, Dreiser’s novel, published at the dawn of the 20th Century, was one of the early American novels written from a working class perspective and focused upon the class struggle. Following in his footsteps were books like Jews Without Money by Mike Gold, A World to Win by Jack Conroy, Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell, and the works of Steinbeck and John Dos Passos.

The story that Dreiser employs to dramatize his political theme is a love triangle—a young woman named Carrie and two established gentlemen. This sounds conventional enough in many ways but from Dreiser’s angle the love affairs are seen as economic more than romantic. They illustrate how the class struggle shapes our most intimate feelings, usually without our being aware. Dreiser takes us on a rags to riches and riches to rags journey. The bare plot sounds like melodrama, but it’s actually realism. The narration gives us in tiny detail all the circumstances motivating our three lovers, and even some of the minor characters. And, among those motivators, money is paramount.

Some of Dreiser’s prose may sound a bit stiff to our ears, and his characters’ frequent streams-of-consciousness tend to flow for many paragraphs. But his dialogue contains the rich, quirky vernacular of the times, and helps to counterbalance the above imperfections. There is great power in Sister Carrie, and its relevance as a working class novel is no less obvious today than in Dreiser’s own time.

An Intimate Journey

In social situations, I often see myself as the last planet in our solar system. Like the theoretical Planet X, I revolve around the periphery, I take longer than anyone else to get around, and, even if I’m part of their system, no one else knows for certain whether I exist.

It takes three things to make a good memoir: interesting life experiences, deep insight (see above excerpt), and the ability to narrate with eloquence and honesty. In They Only Eat Their Husbands (a reference to a certain species of spider), Cara Lopez Lee gives us all three ingredients of great memoir.

Her early life, marked by parental neglect, abuse and abandonment, was one that few individuals could come through unscathed. In a sense, the memoir had to be written, if for no other reason then for the cathartic relief of getting all that hurt from childhood out and onto a printed page. But Cara Lopez Lee writes her story with such insight, eloquence and honesty that the finished product is a work of art, as well as a brilliant statement about life and love. There is humor in her writing (note the title), there is keen imagery. And ultimately this personal narrative, by an accomplished world-traveling journalist, author and editor, gives us an overriding truth. It’s the truth we need to know about confronting emotional pain and building strength of character upon it. And then getting to the part of life that brings satisfaction and self-acceptance.

Not my “Favourite”

I was expecting farce, but I wasn’t expecting gratuitous sex and violence. The farce would have been fine, but it was despoiled by the constant intrusions of sex and violence, neither of which was portrayed with any real human reactions, like love or compassion.

The Favourite” was meant to be a farce about the British monarchy, in a turbulent period, around 1700. It shows the pettiness, the hypocrisy, the double-dealing, the ineptitude of the monarchy. These are all appropriate themes for farce.

Sex and violence, however, are many things but are never funny. They cannot be made farce of. When I say sex, I don’t mean love, romance, or even infidelity. I mean the sex acts themselves that most people prefer to keep private. Violence? You know what I mean.

Crudities, obscenities, grotesqueries, these can be necessary elements if they’re related to the characters or the story. In that case, they deserve to be treated seriously. “The Favourite” gave us crudity and grotesquery in almost every scene, but for no apparent cinematic reason other than trying to make us laugh at things that are inherently unfunny. The producers have, I suppose, succeeded in creating a sensation and padding their box office receipts, though.

Oh, the picture will win lots of awards, despite being (in my opinion) mostly trash. But go see something better, infinitely better: go see “The Green Book”. That remarkable film had disturbing violence and even some sexual themes, but there wasn’t a single word or image that didn’t belong there and there was nothing to diminish the film’s impact, its mission. When the final credits came on I wanted to stay until the very last line. And savor.

I can’t say that about “The Favorite”: I wished I had walked out after the first thirty minutes.

“Thank heaven, for . . .”

Her gaze wandered over Paris, over the sky from which the light drained a little earlier each day, with an impartial severity which possibly condemned nothing.

We saw the movie, recently, about her, and decided we wanted to read one of her books. We had never heard of Colette. But it turns out that we were very familiar with her work. Gigi is one of my wife’s favorite movies. And when I was a kid and began learning to play the cornet, the title song of Gigi was one of the songs in my head that I longed to hear coming out of the bell of my instrument.

So from the library we got Colette’s volume containing her short story Gigi and her short novella The Cat. Reading this mere sample of Colette’s work does not make us experts. It only makes us fans. Here are some thoughts from a fan:

Gigi is a charming story, the movie tracked it pretty closely, just adding a few scenes and characters and a perfect musical score. With refreshing realism and sweet undertone of satire, Colette wrote a story of what one publisher refers to as “the politics of love”. That interesting phrase seems to be a good label for the story, which I would probably have called a comedy of manners. But labels don’t do justice to the story, which is a very special sketch of a very unique romantic entanglement created by the moral ambiguity of early 20th Century Paris. I finished the story with the sudden realization that I had just read a fine piece by a writer of underestimated talent. The Cat did nothing to dispel that opinion and only cemented it.

The Cat gives new meaning to the term “cat lover”. It is a sweet portrayal of human weakness and shortcomings, including awkwardness, jealousy and mistrust between lovers. Colette painted the portrait with a keen sense of observation. And, assuming that the translation is true to the original*, she wrote in language of such rich color and impressive depth that I will keep some of her work in the little gallery in my head where I try to collect bits of artistry, bits of intelligence that may not be masterpieces to others but are priceless to me.

*My brother-in-law could tell me. He used to teach French.

Our priorities . . .

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One Flew East, One Flew West

“What the Chronics are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.”

Counterculture icon Ken Kesey

I was sitting in the backyard reading the closing chapter of a book. I sat under our dying apple tree where many flowers flourish and hummingbirds buzz right past your head. I looked up between paragraphs and there was a little bunny looking directly at me, not seven feet away. It was looking at me like it wanted to be friends but didn’t know how to start the conversation without sounding awkward. Neither did I. Before I could say something warm and endearing, it turned tail and scampered. The book I was reading was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I don’t know if there’s any significance. Somehow it seemed like the right book to be reading at that moment.

And I hadn’t decided to finally read the book this year because of little rabbits or because I was only waiting for the point at which our political system turns into a national madhouse. No, sometimes I just like to save good things for later. Like a reward, sort of, for being patient.

So what can one say about Cuckoo’s Nest that hasn’t been said already, except “Yup, it’s a great novel. You guys were right.” And I already knew they were right, from having seen the movie when it first screened back in 1975. Jack Nicholson gave a performance like nothing else I’ve ever seen. But most of the credit goes to Ken Kesey. He created R.P. McMurphy, and if there’s a more unforgettable character in all of American literature, let him or her swagger forward. Or, to use his own words, “I’ll eat my hat.”

Another unforgettable character is the narrator. Chief Bromden, tormented by memories, fears and visions, plays a small and silent part in the plot, but is otherwise a keen fly on the wall of the mental ward. The Chief is especially obsessed with McMurphy and the social whirlwind he stirs up in the ward. The Chief’s own mental state, already vulnerable, is caught up in the whirlwind. His impressions, his sometimes streaming consciousness, are racked by machine imagery and terror of something he calls the Combine—a huge greedy corporate/police apparatus that seems to be his personal metaphor for oppression of the working class. Kesey, only twenty-six when he published Cuckoo’s Nest, came straight from a working class environment himself.

Politically correct Kesey is not: women and numerous minorities don’t come out looking too good in this novel. But Kesey isn’t asking you to judge them in a vacuum. He wants you to see everyone, all their cruelty, the pettiness, the weakness, as products of the Combine. And he wants you to see Randle Patrick McMurphy, his fearless individualism and his rowdy zest for life, as the last, best hope for shutting the ugly thing down once and for all.

In case I wasn’t clear before about how I really feel about this book: If you believe there’s an American novel that soars any higher or morally overshadows Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest, it better be something by Steinbeck.