another book bites the dust

I can’t find a copy of Deliverance. It’s like it never existed. So I’m reading All The King’s Men because it’s available.

Just got a text from City library that The Corrections is ready for pick-up. Thanks, guys :).

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dinner with yuppies

two words: indignant spectator

I picked The Corrections because it’s one of the few on The List written in this century. A contemporary book about a contemporary family. Ace. Other than that, I knew nothing of Franzen or his novels. How? I live under a rock apparently.

I gave up on the library in February after the various queues in Yarra, Darebin and the city weren’t budging and went trawling for The Corrections in second-hand shops. One of my book ladies, the cool one, gushed when I mentioned Franzen as she apologized profusely for the absence of his novels on her shelves, the scarce few copies relinquished by previous owners positively evaporate within seconds of landing in her shop, she is so disappointed I hadn’t heard about the Oprah scandal and that we couldn’t touch brows about it, he’s an advocate for ‘serious American literature’, he’s been on the cover of Time, he also writes for them, he is so generous with his writing process, you have to read Freedom

So, the pressure was on to like Franzen and his novel, which can mean only one thing: I probably won’t like Franzen or his novel.

True to form, after catching up on the goss, purchasing the iBook for $15 and spending the last four nights reading it, I’m struggling to remember anything that makes me gasp for more Franzen (and to not think of him as a snob). But just in case I’m being petty and reactive let’s do some ‘corrections’.

franzen's time cover, august 2010

There were elements I enjoyed in The Corrections. The conversations were brilliant. The equal emphasis Franzen places on the ‘said’ and ‘unsaid’ made me feel like a telepathic eavesdropper. His portrayal of the cringe-worthy incongruousness of our inner and outer selves, of the desire to rewind that last word/slap/night, of regret is believable.

Franzen also nails the nuclear family dynamic. I can relate to the disgruntling flashes of familial retention, the secrecy and fragile suspension of disbelief, the alliances in extended warfare between spouses and siblings, the urgency to flee, the enduring love: These are all sensitively and beautifully recreated.

The problem is his characters; they leave me cold. Of the five central characters – Enid and Alfred Lambert, elderly mid-westerners, and their three adult children, Gary, Chip and Denise, all on a mad dash east of their parents’ traditional influence – there isn’t one that I could connect with. In fact, the only character I identified with is the unnamed English author who says,

I suppose that a country that teaches creationism in its schools may be forgiven for believing that baseball does not derive from cricket. p.272

There were mild pangs of sympathy for Chip and Alfred, but I couldn’t suppress my resentment of the excess, the snobbery, the insularity, the permissiveness, the recklessness, the passive-aggressiveness and Franzen’s half-assed critique of these traits. I’m stupefied by the greed and the waste that goes unchallenged throughout this novel. I felt like a gate-crasher, like a hippie ‘plus-one’ at a yuppie Lambert do, like an incredulous spectator at an extravagant self-pity party. The affected discontent embodied in Chip’s cigarette burn as he trades battle scars with a torture survivor points at the pervasive sense of entitlement that shits me with this novel,

“Self inflicted. You pathetic American.”
“Different kind of prison,” Chip said. p.89.

You’ve got good metre, Chip, but get the fuck over yourself.

If Franzen meant The Corrections as ‘farce’ he bombed at critical mass. The progression is too slight (if not regressive) and by extension, tragic, most of all with Gary. There simply isn’t enough satire in this ‘satire’ and too many things still wrong with the picture. I anticipated a big finish, other ‘corrections’, catharsis. I didn’t get it.

I think of Franzen as the new Jane Austen, intimately recreating his familiar world, the world he perceives as ‘common’ – a world I can’t relate to unless you’re calling it out.

Maybe my expectations were falsified – by Franzen and my book lady. Maybe Franzen strove for authenticity over circularity/form. Maybe there’s a sequel in the works. Maybe, like Alfred’s death, The Corrections ended in an intentional fizzle. Whatever it is, it’s not a novel I’m keen to read again (I would read the sequel, though) and apart from his exceptional insight into dementia, I don’t feel particularly enriched having read it.

soundtrack
don’t believe the hype-public enemy
american idiot-green day
the wrong child-r.e.m.

sex, murder & the chair

two words: protracted letdown

Sex, murder and the chair! This has got to be good!

First clue it isn’t: What the guys who put An American Tragedy in the Top 100 have to say about Theodore Dreiser.

Line for line, he’s the weakest of the great American novelists,

and

He takes a pipe fitter’s approach to writing,

So “How! How! How!”  (as Dreiser would put it) did the novel make the list? Because it’s a good story made all the more poignant that it’s based on actual events. Done well, An American Tragedy could have been half its length and twice as good, but rather than achieve complexity by withholding, Dreiser presents every point-of-view possible. To add to this lack of restraint is the god-awful prose – the stilted vernacular, the lame attempts at stream of consciousness, the poverty of imagery and subtlety, the ‘gew-gaws’, the ‘pooh-poohs’ –  it is dreadful writing.

At the heart of An American Tragedy is a very sad story. Then there is what Dreiser does to it. I’ve forfeited six weeks of my reading life finishing this novel, so rather than waste another second on it…

soundtrack
homeward bound-simon & garfunkel

so, how did the judge kill the kid?

Patrick Shaw in The Kid’s Fate, The Judge’s Guilt suggests the judge sodomizes the kid in the jakes at the end of BM. But that doesn’t ring cruel enough to strike awe among men already numb to violence, or me for that matter. Homo-eroticism is prominent in BM – men hold hands like lovers, they fall asleep in each others arms, the kid is once casually perceived as a male whore, none of which causes a stir. Rape in all its forms is also rampant. One little girl is chained naked by the neck to a wall, and at the lake-side massacre, gang members raped dead or dying male and female bodies, which implies some-unspeakable-thing else happens at the jakes.

the judge's kill hannibal style

The judge gave up on trying to claim the kid in his final play in the desert. Now his only desire is to kill him, most likely with more flare than we’ve seen so far in BM. I think he smothered him or crushed his head with his bare hands, an act he performed at least once in the desert, then skinned him and left his body strung as evidence, Hannibal Lecter style, in the jakes. The kid is finally relieved of his 9th life.

But maybe that’s the evil talking. What’s your take?

blood meridian & beloved: evil twins

two words: irresistible evil

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy, 1986, is the filthy brutal expectorating brother to Beloved, Toni Morrison, 1987. Both novels, set in mid 19th century USA, around the time manifest destiny became more than just a notion, explore twin sides of a blood-soaked history: As the atrocity of slavery is perpetrated in the east, the other monster America’s legacy is built on, genocide keeps wicked hands busy in the barren west.

This is a hungry country. p.17

Both novels have a breathtaking lyrical pulse, but while Beloved has beauty (and a plot), everything is harsh, heavy, ugly and relentless in Blood Meridian.

This does not diminish its appeal.

Blood Meridian is McCarty’s imaginative take on the Glanton Gang‘s bloody rampage across the south-western border between 1849 and 1850. (Beloved too is a retelling of the trial of slavewoman, Margaret Garner, c.1856.) Adapted from Samuel Chamberlain’s visual and romanticized memoir,  My Confessions: The Recollections of a Rogue, written for his daughters, McCarthy reinvents the Glanton Gang Moby Dick style. Unlike Chamberlain’s version, we are spared no blood-spatter or braining or entrailspill or infantkill: I lost count of the scalps, ears, hearts, heads and testicles taken in BM. Just when you think there is no other way to kill or rape man, woman, child or beast, another is invented in brutal effect. Every kill or near-kill is significant, even the one too cruel to describe. Evil and dominion, as echoed in BM‘s epigraphs, are not exclusive to the American story, they are part of the larger human story. The judge preaches,

War endures. Before man was war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting the ultimate practitioner. War is god. p.p. 248-249

and the truth of it registers in our annals.

The central character in Blood Meridian, ‘the kid’, a 16 year old runaway, is violent but not evil. He remains incorruptible even as he finds a home among the rabid and vicious scalp-hunters. Judge Holden, a Gene Hackman type meets Milton’s devil, has full control of everyone, John Glanton especially. But he wants the kid. He and his natural rival, the expriest Tobin, another member of the gang, in a “secret commerce” wage a tacit battle to claim him across the desert stretch, but the kid resists.

You alone were mutinous. You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen. p.299

It is only after a near three-decade chase that the judge finally gets the kid, now ‘the man’, to ‘dance’.

here beyond mens judgment, all covenants are brittle. p. 106.

I winced and moaned my way through Blood Meridian. When I got to the dead centre of that terrible book, by the lake, at the very threshold into evil the title describes, I had to put it down and wait a few hours to pick it up again. It went that way for days over the second half of the novel. My heart pounded, I could barely breathe, as a morbid compulsion to see the bloody spectacle through took hold. I am desperate still for it to let me go, as I am haunted by the question: What did the judge do to the man?

cormac mccarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s epic is masterfully told. His forensic ability to stare unflinchingly at the heart and entrails  of American history and say what he sees is remarkable, matched only by his poetic proclivities. He covers not only the vast terrain of the American west, but the terrifying expanse of human capacity for evil.

A mans at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. p.19

Little Children‘s director Todd Field is/was attempting an adaptation after Ridley Scott rejected it as un-filmable. The sheer scale of the violence and terrain are mammoth challenges, so I agree with Scott that this is one for pages. As for Field, I wish him godspeed and good insurance.

soundtrack
cowboys and angels-george michael
war-bob marley