Tag Archives: novels

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.

“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.

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.

Where have you been all my life?

“I’ve always thought,” I said, “that anyone who makes someone else doubt the foundations of his morals hasn’t lived in vain.”

Our daughter loaned us the book. My wife and I both read it. I had never heard of Marguerite Duras. I am glad to have crossed paths with her at last. The Sailor From Gibraltar is an odyssey of sorts, and a strange kind of love story. A nameless disenchanted bureaucrat becomes infatuated with a woman pursuing an endless voyage to find a lost lover. Both loves are one-sided, obsessive, and blind. At the deepest level, the novel is a study in philosophy and psychology. It charts the murky depths of love and, certainly, life as well.

Written and translated in tough, lean prose, the book is a search for something that doesn’t exist. The story and its characters are full of contradictions. They don’t know their own minds—or hearts. And that’s what ultimately touches ours.

To Have and Have Not, by Ernest Hemingway

“If he wanted us he would have signaled us. If he don’t want us it’s none of our business. Down here everybody aims to mind their own business.”

“All right. Suppose you mind yours then. Take us over to that boat.”

It’s Hemingway at his hard-boiled best. It’s a tough and ready rum-runner named Harry, who smuggles booze and criminals between Cuba and the Florida Keys during the darkest days (and nights ) of the depression. It’s just a tropical storm away from Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools.

And, using post-modernist devices like shifting narration between characters and then into third person, Hemingway nails down the misery, the desperation, that the Great Depression left in its wake. He adds a final section to this short novel, providing stark social commentary through several characters who have little or no connection to the main story line. But, though the book’s structure may be flawed, “Papa” Ernie’s insight into the suffering and cruelty of the times is right on course.

“Released”

I have a weakness for fiction set in small towns. I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone. Look at the popularity of Peyton Place.

Well, the small Nebraska town in which author Bonnie Lacy set her novel Released is a bit of a Peyton Place itself. It’s a battleground, in fact, for the ceaseless clash of good and evil. And as that battle plays out, Lacy unwinds a powerful story of the humanity that resides in even the most hardened or sickened of souls. She gives us deep insight into the mind and feelings of an abused child—one of society’s saddest secrets—as well as the mind and heart of the abuser, all with a sensibility that is rare.

Downtown Osceola: north side of courthouse square

Clarence is an elderly convict full of bitterness. Bea is an abused child living in terror. Katty is her abusive, addicted mother. Their lives intersect, and a decades-old mystery is re-awakened. Told with wit and realism, the mystery grows into a nail-biting life or death struggle. The combined strength of unselfish love and religious faith is the only alliance that can champion the good side of that struggle.

Released is the first book in Bonnie Lacy’s Great Escapee Series. I am anxious to pursue whatever truths are yet to unfold.

WHITE BIRD, by RUTA SEVO

“It’s an adventure you haven’t had yet, Thomas. Sit.”

Thomas smiled. He was thinking of his dog Sally.

For a long time I’ve had a fascination with westerners who expatriate themselves to remote places in the Asian Subcontinent. The way they make full and rich lives for themselves, steeped in eastern tradition, and yet often accomplish great things for the welfare of the local inhabitants, somehow intrigues me. I’ve heard some pretty amazing stories. Well, here’s a pretty amazing book:

Picture

In her novel White Bird, writer-scholar-translator Ruta Sevo skillfully explores the unusual demographics of present-day Nepal and the clash of cultures that confronts an American visitor and raises some very fundamental questions about what life is, or ought to be, all about. Thomas Rusak, the American, has come to Nepal with his brother’s ashes in search of the most meaningful spot for scattering them to the wind and rain. This mission turns, necessarily, into a search for his brother’s mysterious past in Nepal, a past that Thomas feels he must unearth in order to finally understand his brother and the lifelong complexities of their relationship. And Thomas cannot open up that past without intruding intimately into the lives of two extraordinary women.

As it turns out, Sevo tells this story with such pungent detail, such a “sensory onslaught” of Nepali life and landscapes, that it becomes more than just a story about individuals. It becomes a story about cultures. It becomes the equally mysterious search for the essence of that great magnetic pull that eastern philosophies have over westerners, who sometimes chuck it all for the rustic spiritual life in places like Nepal. Thus, White Bird is a dazzling, swooping mystery that lifts itself to different altitudes. Like all good mysteries, there may be answers for every question on one level, but ten questions for every answer on another.