The Catcher in the Rye: I caught a body

two words: original emo

1st edition cover, 1951

I tend to like suicidal gits who just so happen to be the smartest (and the dumbest) fucker in the room. In fact, that is the story of my life.

The Catcher in the Rye is about a rich kid – articulate, athletic, but a bit weird – whose bad day just got dipped in shit because he’s been expelled yet again from yet another prep school. Instead of returning home, he goes on a bender in his native New York City. But he’s not your predictable American-psycho entitled meathead. He’s as sad as they come. And he’s trying to tell you why, in his own voice. Seriously, it’s a first-person narrative.

Here’s what he says in a nutshell,

“I’m sensitive prick with a stupid hat and a death wish. Adults are frauds and social norms are bullshit. But if you were the underdog in any fight I’d have your back, like a catcher in the rye.”

Naturally, it caused a ruckus when it came out. A promising kid rebels to a point of self-annihilation for no apparent reason; there’s smoking, drinking, bad language, death, violence and sex, and he’s pants-down vulnerable. And what’s with J.D. Salinger’s unusual narration? Catcher’s power resides exactly in the reader’s response to these exquisite ‘problems’. Why is Holden so self-destructively disillusioned? And how did J.D. write such an original, sublimely informal and utterly convincing young voice?

It killed me. p5

Many have tried unsuccessfully to adapt the book to film, which makes me clap-hands-quietly pleased. This is one depressing slice of perfection I do not want to see happied-up or angsted-out. It’d be like adapting On The Road for screen… Wait, they did what?… NOOOOO!!!

Anyways, I adore The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve been re-reading it every chance I get for more than a decade. It gets better every time. Oddly enough, my live-in lover @galactusrages couldn’t get past the first page. He hates it in the same way I hate the sound of my own voice played back to me.  OH, HAIL NAW, there’s no goddam way I sound like that!

My lover isn’t the first or last to hate the guy; Holden Caulfield is a douche. He may be an angry, reckless, whiny bastard… wait, which emo am I talking about again? Either way, I’m in love.

o.g. original gangster-ice t

was adam intent on killing jackie too?

Idealism is always under threat of latent hypocrisy, sometimes a hypocrisy more heinous than the crime idealism protects us from.

Jack Burden participated in Adam Stanton’s betrayal of his ideals. He convinced him to work with Willie Stark and unearthed the indiscretions, though noble, of his father. He also unwittingly handed his sister, Anne, over to Willie, thus corrupting everything Adam cared about. He appears to aim the gun at Jackie, but Sugarboy killed him before he could fire. By Adam’s standards, just like the woman from the north who brutalized her slaves in the south, the ‘friend of his youth’, deserved to die along with Willie Stark. Blot out the enemy, whip them, murder them, sell them down river. Anything but abide a knowing look in their eyes.

I believe he wanted it to be a double homicide.

the lion, the witch and the wardrobe: propoganda posing as fantasy

two words: anglo-christian bollocks

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a fantasy parable for children, written by English novelist and lay theologian, C.S. Lewis. Four young siblings in wartime England access a parallel and fantastical world though a mysterious wardrobe found in a safe-home they’ve been relocated to in the country. In this parallel world, with the help of the lion, Aslan, they must defeat the tyrannical White Witch, Jadis, and fulfill a prophecy of a peaceful Narnia under their reign.

It should have been a charming story about the redemptive qualities of imagination during war. C. S. Lewis, however, was a zealous christian apologist.

In full disclosure, I’m an atheist, but I can still like a good story. A more pertinent preexisting condition is, I just came off reading The Painted Bird, and after Kosinski, Tumnus the faun, made my skin crawl. But I accept that as my problem. Clive Staples Lewis’s problem was his lack of imagination.

I can understand how a book like The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe gets written – the inscription to his god-daughter, whom he wrote it for, is the sweetest thing – but how it remains relevant outside England and among non-Christians is baffling. The Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve references are heavy-handed and insular at best. Then there’s the Lilith reference in his Jadis description,

She’s no daughter of Eve. She comes from your father Adam’s first wife, her they call Lilith and she was one of the Jinn… There isn’t a real drop of human blood in the witch. p.73

The White Witch is his only original character and he manages to be gender and culture-insensitive (I’m still being kind) in one fell swoop, not to mention the “There’s no use frightening the girls,” and “Battles are ugly when women fight,” comments. But just when you think the story can be redeemed beyond its insularity, here comes Santa Claus, I kid you not. It is a transparent play for feel-good points, and as tired a character as one can steal from a coke ad.

bayne is renowned for her beautiful depictions of people and animals

Audibly groaning, I persevere, if only for the wonderful illustrations by Tolkien-recommended Pauline Baynes (at least he used his close friendship with the high-fantasy phenom for some good) and, since this is a moral tale, surely the moral of the story will be worth wading through the muck.

Even if you are a Christian, it is not. Aslan tricks the White Witch to get what he wants. He, more like a rabbit and less like a lion, withholds knowledge of ‘deeper magic’ and only pretends to sacrifice himself for Edmund. I cannot reconcile his benevolence with this obvious ruse. It also inadvertently sheds negative light on Jesus’s sacrifice, so, well done, Clive!

Surprisingly, since they typically hedge their bets, Disney adapted the novel to film.  It is a faithful adaptation, and as a result I kept falling asleep.

Disney didn’t lose money, but it wasn’t a resounding commercial success either, despite being star-studded – James McAvoy plays Tumnus and Tilda Swinton plays the White Witch. (Tilda can be forgiven since Isis Mussenden’s costumes are stunning and she’s a notorious fashion whore – she is fabulous but have you seen some of the shit she wears?) Georgie Henley, playing Lucy, is as cute as a button, but she over-acted the bejesus out of that role – she cries in every single frame… and I’ve already forgotten all the other characters. It’s safe to say I won’t be bothering with either of the sets of sequels/prequels.

I feel like I’m attacking Lacayo and Grossman for their nostalgia, but how The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe ends up in a Top 100 and Middlesex doesn’t boggles the mind.

This List has served to fill some major holes in my reading experience, but this isn’t one of those instances. I was perfectly whole with my unpretentious Anancy stories.

possession-sarah mclaclan

the painted bird: vignettes of ornithological & human horror

two words: perverse odyssey

first edition cover, 1965

I read the first half of The Painted Bird cold, before I had any details on Jerzy Kosinski. I understood there was an autobiographical element to the novel and was excited to get to know him through his words describing his ordeal during the holocaust. But with an increasing unwilling suspension of disbelief and an urge to call Adam and Jamie, I reevaluated the term TIME used to describe the novel – ‘controversial’. What exactly did they mean?

Mid-novel, I decided to look Kosinski up. I found a slew of negative press and this cumulative review. Turns out Kosinski may have been a hack, a fraud, a pervert, a liar, a social-climber, a plagiarist, non-Jewish, and never poor.

With suspicions (then some!) affirmed, I plunged into the second half of the novel searching for literary rather than historical merit…. I closed the novel wondering – how did The Painted Bird make TIME any Top 100?

To be fair, Kosinski starts off well. The Painted Bird opens with Marta’s death described by believably innocent and confused eyes. The central image of a painted bird being devoured by its own kind, and other ornithological allusion, is also quite stunning. It speaks to how eager we are to viciously annihilate even one of our own out of misplaced xenophobia. Ludmila’s brutal murder by fellow peasant women is the epitome of this imagery.

kosinski was as notorious for his lies as he was famous for his fiction

But then the novel spirals deeper and deeper into pointless and contrived accounts that appear less and less about insight into war and more a platform for perverse predilections. The Painted Bird devolves into vignettes of sexual abasement and horror described by a conveniently/inconveniently placed little boy, with bits of holocaust thrown in to legitimize it. It began to feel like a sick joke.

Kosinski had a knack for appropriating and exploiting tragedy – he did it with The Tate/Manson Murders, saying he was an invited guest the night of August 8, 1969, a claim Polanski denies. There’s also his vocal by-proxy battle with brain cancer à la his wife, where he fails to mention that she divorced him and wrote him out of her will before she died. And many other blatant and exploitative omissions and lies.

Whichever way you look at it, being a real, adjacent or imaginary holocaust survivor is not literary absolution, and The Painted Bird page after page morphs into trivial and artless treatment of a deadly serious subject.

I feel duped and defiled. Just the way he seemed to like it.

I was excited to read The Painted Bird, and unless Kosinski’s apparent hoax is part of an elaborate painted bird experiment – he the painted bird and me part of the mob flock that devours him – the novel is a huge disappointment and easily the worst book I’ve ever read.

the painted bird killed the music inside me

all the king’s men: the beef steak & the slaughterhouse

two words: one coin

You know this story. It plays out regularly, every four or six years or so. Politics.

Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All The King’s Men re-enacts the ancient and brutal clash of ethics inherent in all power struggles and with all the usual suspects – this time in the impoverished south in 1930’s USA.

Cue the populist, the oligarchs and a bitter bloody end.

The central character, Willie Stark, a self-proclaimed hick who wants to be president, and the wealthy land-owners (former slave-owners) and oil barons with tenuous grip on the status quo, each believe themselves entitled to govern the resource-rich state of Louisiana. The ‘oligarchs’, inflated with lofty idealism and old-power, and upstart Willie, endowed with the ‘will and need’ of his fellow “rednecks, suckers and hicks,” p.142 engage in a feud ripe with hypocrisy and doom: Idealism is propped up on selective amnesia and complacency, and Willie relies heavily on coercion and intimidation. But both sides bear an absolute moral right. Both wear blinders,

…like someone who just love beef steak but just can’t bear to go down to a slaughterhouse because there are some bad rough men down there who aren’t animal lovers p.385

which is psychic observation, as at this very moment in our own slaughterhouse ‘abattoir’ wars, idealism is still brother to dirty deed. They are inextricable, and the clash as innate as sibling rivalry. Idealism and action are equal parts of the same thing, each vital to the others existence. As are outrage and obstinate ignorance.

This is observed  by All The King’s Men narrator Jack Burden, the apathetic student of History who straddles both sides – son to a wealthy land owner but employee to Willie Stark. He plays the role of inert nexus. Plagued by a paralysis of fear and lack of conviction, he inadvertently affects the destiny of each character in the novel.

For all the world is one piece… it doesn’t matter whether you meant to brush the web of things. p.283

Jackie Burden learns in the end what he would have learned finishing a thesis he abandoned: that there are always ‘historical costs’ p.593 ricocheting through time and space beyond our action or inaction.

Consequence is a bitch and never pretty.

I really enjoyed reading All The King’s Men, but I wish it was shorter than its near 700 pages, as it easily could’ve been if Warren chopped out all the repetition, the narrator’s intrusive musings and the hysterics from the women. But it was a really great read, with its hazy and bourbon-soaked southern drawl, charming parochial wit and Sugar-Boy’s “b-b-b-bastards.”

Adding to the relish of this novel is that Willie Stark is based on real-life populist Huey Long, nicknamed ‘The Kingfish’, which is more pertinent to the title than the Humpty-Dumpty nursery rhyme.

Willie Stark’s assassin is also based on real life Dr. Carl Weiss. Fun fact.

There are two film adaptations. The first in 1949 won 3 Academy Awards,

and the 2006 film isn’t as terrible as everyone says.

It’s a fairly faithful adaptation, a bit top-heavy in the casting and mangled at the end, but it is beautifully beautifully shot and retains Warren’s best and most memorable lines verbatim.

Bonus Fun Fact: What do Barack Obama and Willie Stark have in common? Both are intent on beating the odds, and both can snatch a fly from mid-air, like Keisuke Miyagi.

hypocrites-bob marley
everyone choose sides-the wrens

the list revision

female author: check. non-'american' author: check.

After emerging curiosity and biases, along with the realization that I’m cheating myself with so many re-reads, I’ve revised The List:

  1. Four re-reads have been replaced,
  2. I’m reading a (different) Philip Roth after Callil quit over his 2011 Man Booker win,
  3. I’m tossing Naipaul because he’s a bigoted ass-wipe -Jean Rhys has the Caribbean covered and I’ve reached my limit with his bullshit,
  4. The List has been de-Yank-ified -although with Nabokov classed as ‘American’ and Rhys as ‘English’, national status isn’t terribly meaningful- and
  5. As many female authors as possible, from a severely restricted ‘Top 100‘, have been added.

it’s been a while…

When it’s winter and nighttime in this great southern land, it’s summer and daytime up north, which means this fiendin’ sista gets no sleep – I’m nightly on the tube, high as a kite on sports. By day, with bleeding eyes and chilblained fingers, I groan through the perfunctory.

Welcome to zombie-land, you’re stuck on this fun ride for three months solid!

I’m not about to feign regret. It will happen again next year, and 2012 will be disgusting since it’s an Olympic year. Like I said, it’s the way daddy made me.

But wait, I recall musical digressions too.

Reggae/Dancehall is meant for sticky summer nights, if only for the batty riders and dry-humping. But Gyptian, my beautiful Jamaican brother, braved our Melbourne cold and so did I. He was beautiful. His stage presence and voice were incredible. Granted, there was no band, just some dude mixing riddims which shits me no end, but did I mention Gyptian is beautiful and brotha can sing?

The night was further blighted by a police incident. ‘Nuf said.

Wherever you are, nothing beats local talent and Karnivool is phenomenal. Ian Kenny is a weedy bespectacled musical god. I happily destroyed myself in an albeit lame pit – I know, I’m as weak as pus – but my hoarseness and aching neck paid tribute to those Perth boys. I close on them with Fade and testament to just how hard these fuckers work.

Oscar+Martin, a joyful answer to Friendly Fires and Sparkadia, and down-the-road local boys from Two Bright Lakes, was also a treat. I was nearly the tallest, a novelty, and definitely the oldest, sadly not a novelty, at this gig. The best bit by far was the kid taking puffs off his inhaler before dipping into a killer hip-hop skit. And those drums, man I loves me some drums! Here they are in video…

Finally, I mourn the passing of a legend.

On July 23, 2011, Amy Winehouse died. She was love too raw, too exposed. She numbed the hurt of love to death. I rend my shirt for the one who gave pieces of her soul in prescient lyrics and infallible tones unceasingly, and am ashamed that I have nothing but endless tears to give back…

If my man was fighting
Some unholy war
I would be behind him
Straight shook up beside him
With strength he didn’t know
It’s you I’m fighting for
He can’t lose with me in tow
I refuse to let him go
At his side and drunk on pride
We wait for the blow
We put it in writing
But we are writing for
Just us on kitchen floor
Justice done presiding
My stomach standing still like you reading my will
Still stands in spite of what his scars say
And I’ll battle til this bitter finale
Just me, my dignity and this guitar case
Yeah, my man is fighting some unholy war
I will stand beside you
And who you dying for?
B, I would have died too. I’d like to
If my man was fighting
Some unholy war…

You died and became immortal, Amy Winehouse. And I grieve.

Oh, and I ploughed through some heavies, On The Road, The Grapes of Wrath and All The King’s Men included. I have new thoughts on the blog, and will be changing The List accordingly.

So begins my battle – nearly dried out, newly rested and clutching sketchy drafts – to reclaim the second half of fiftytwoin52….

less than one week til i go cold turkey…

le tour de france, 2011

While on my Northern-Hemisphere-Summer-of-Sports fix, which is sadly and thankfully about to end with LeTour, I’ve been reading and tweeting. Check out the tweets here.

Beginning to miss my blog dearly, however, expect me to be off the wagon again in September when the US Open  begins in NYC, but only for two weeks as opposed to three months. It’z da way it iz…

freudian shits

you said your bother...

I just noticed ‘solomom’, fuck knows how long it’s been there. Funny, since that’s all I’ve been for two weeks solid – the padawan and princess are on holiday. Every thought has to be rushed at peril of interruption. Mommy, can I have _____? Mommy, _____said/did _____! Mommy, can you play with me? Must wrap this up now. The squinkies and clone troopers are…

the milk of wrath

So it turns out The Grapes of Wrath is not the kind of book one can ‘slam down’. It is in fact the kind of book that changes you.

Steinbeck is affecting me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I cry when I read all the time, but never like this. Today I wept in the milk aisle at the supermarket because I. Am. Changed.

My children will inherit the earth not long from now and a worm farm, a little recycling and footing it where possible are simply inadequate in securing a healthy planet for them. My commitment to making this human-infested shithole better begins and ends with ethical consumption.


where ya been, woman?!

rafa and what's his face @ men's final french open, 2011

I’d like to blame it all on being very ill after a trip to Sydney (I really was), but the truth is, a little event at Roland Garros put a world-class moratorium on my book blog. I’m a little bit of a tennis fan, so May/June are write-off months for me. I watch live sports all night and sleepwalk all day.

I have a week or two before SW19 flu (a.k.a. Wimbledon) takes hold, so I’ll be slamming down the rest of The Grapes of Wrath and The Heart of the Matter before I become hopelessly distracted again.

The pains of blogging! Vamos Rafa and Serena!!!

bad manners on a platter

two words: bitter humour

a handful of dust, 1934

Don’t piss Evelyn Waugh off, or he’ll write a book about it.

He had a bone to pick with the 1930’s ‘tween-war English gentry and his cheating soon-to-be-ex-wife Evelyn Gardner (yes, her name was Evelyn too,) so he picked it to critical acclaim: He wrote A Handful of Dust, a charming but caustic comedy (and tragedy) of the spuriously sophisticated.

A Handful of Dust starts off as a hilarious satire of the meaningless indulgences of the English 1930’s aristocracy, then it pivots after a tragic accident into a harsh critique of a cold, cruel and doomed class. Tony and Brenda Last’s decaying marriage mirrors the failings of this generation ripe with entitlement and boredom, where sex, gossip and hypocrisy substitute for entertainment; elegant London landmarks as well as Hetton, the beloved but crumbling country estate of Tony’s childhood, are under threat of money-grabbing ‘conversion’; and unsuspecting spouses and sons are unconscionably traded in for insipid ‘second-rate snobs’ like John Beaver. At the bitter end of his dull marriage, Tony Last, complicit in his prolonged and deliberate blindness and after bearing the brunt of a callous society, duly rejects England entirely and sets out on a chimerical quest to the Brazilian jungle, where the laws, he suspects, can be no more feral. There he experiences a Dickensian symmetry that tests his will to survive in an inescapably savage world, and the novel closes on an exquisitely brutal note.

'he evelyn' and 'she evelyn'

While writing A Handful of Dust, Waugh was a man scorned, evident in his furious portrayal of Brenda Last – she is a silly, shallow and selfish caricature – and his inversely sympathetic portrayal of the male protagonist, Tony Last. Despite this, the novel is thoroughly enjoyable for its mitigating wit and flare,

Let us kill in the gentlest manner. p.207,

and inadvertently, women aren’t Waugh’s only target. So too are the men who love them. The humour is savory and the social assassination sublime, which makes me want to read more Waugh, since nothing is as delightful as a well-executed comedy (or tragedy) of unspeakably bad manners.

The novel was made into a movie in 1988, directed by Charles Sturrige and lead by a radiant Kristin Scott Thomas. As with other adaptations made for scholastic purposes such as Clayton/Redford’s The Great Gatsby (the two novels read like trans-Atlantic counterparts) A Handful of Dust was not nearly as successful on film, which gives me hope for Brideshead Revisited, another novel by Waugh also on the Times List

Anticipate changes on My List.

beauty school-deftones

baldwin speaks in the uk

In this three-part lecture series, James Baldwin adds to the rhetoric on racism in The US and The Caribbean.

If you can’t wade all the way through, at least see Dick Gregory‘s contribution at the end of Part 3. He answers: Is there a place for white liberals in black power, and damn near eclipses Baldwin at his own gig. And did I mention Gregory is as fine as they come, and funny too? Nothing as good as eye candy and humour when you’re delivering stone-cold truth.

The gist:

Our ticket to the new world was a Bill of Sale.

Price paid.

Black is not a colour, it’s an attitude.
White is not a colour, it’s an attitude.

we need to talk about tilda


Not on The List, but the BBC film adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin, directed by Lynne Ramsay (once sacked and replaced by Peter Jackson in The Lovely Bones) and led by the amazing Tilda Swinton, gives me mad chills.

We Need To talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is a thoughtful and riveting thriller about the relationship between a New York career-oriented mother and her unusual son who grows up to be a Columbine-style mass murderer. Its discourse on nature v. nurture is compelling, so much so it fucked me up royally for weeks, and I began frequently and randomly hugging my kids for much longer that they were comfortable with.

I cannot wait to see the movie.

what’s in a name?

henry lamb's evelyn waugh, 1929

Evelyn Waugh is a man, never mind his name or Henry Lamb’s portrait.

It’s a pleasant switch-up from the George Eliots, Carson McCullers, Ray Eames, J.K. Rowlings, Lionel Shrivers and Harper Lees who mask their gender in neuter/masculine names and initials to be ‘taken more seriously’.

Does your expectation of a novel’s worth vary with the author’s gender?

In an age of information, is this type of guile effective?

nigger: old world v. new

original 1939 title of 'and then there were none'

Having a purely new world sense of the word, I nearly fell out of bed when I read the line,

…as strong as a nigger. p.41 The Death of The Heart.

Anna, for whom ‘bigot’ is an entirely pointless character development, uses it casually to describe her servant. Its usage clashed so strongly with my sensibilities, and this is after reading Blood Meridian and Beloved without the faintest pique, I felt compelled to find out why. Why do I accept it in some novels but never in others?

According to wiki, ‘nigger’, pejorative and all, was fair game in the UK until the 1970’s, so Anna’s speech is consistent with late 1930’s UK usage, which saddens me since I’d believed until now that the UK outpaced the US in race relations, hence my expectations and varying tolerance. Silly me.

Cue my own little death of the heart. Time for me to be maudlin, to mourn the loss of illusions, and continue to two-step around a word I wish was less loaded everywhere.

the death of the (maudlin) heart

two words: terminally dotish

Elizabeth Bowen was a remarkable individual: she was the first woman in her family to inherit property; she rolled with Virginia Wolff; she took younger lovers, female lovers too; she was multi-talented – she gave up art to pursue writing; she was not only a prolific writer, but a staunch political activist; she’s Irish-born, towering, fearless.

Bowen’s fifth novel The Death of the Heart, in the vein of Henry James, author of The Portrait of a Lady, is about the baptismal loss of innocence in a cold and cruel world. Lilian, a passionate young woman at a boarding college, is expelled after a debilitating infatuation with her cello mistress… wait…. No, that’s what I wished the novel was about. Bowen thought Portia’s story was more compelling. Right….

The Death of the Heart is about Portia, a gauche melodramatic sixteen year old, sent to live with her older brother, Thomas, and his cynical wife, Anna. (Lilian, sadly, is just Portia’s friend from lessons.) Portia falls tragically in love with Anna’s friend, Eddie, a Lothario type who once smiled at her after she fetched his hat. Eddie sees Portia’s innocence as a safe haven from his otherwise corrupt life, so he reluctantly shakes her off when she demands more than friendship. Devastated, she throws herself at another of Anna’s friends, Major Brutt, who once gave her a jigsaw puzzle – she mistook that gesture for ‘love’ too. He won’t take advantage of her simple-mindedness either and marry her as she suggests, so she gets dumped twice in one day. She refuses to return home, however, because St. Quentin, another of Anna’s friends, has told her that Anna has been secretly reading her diary. A servant is dispatched to retrieve Portia from Major Brutt’s room.

Are you waiting for something novel-worthy to happen? Too bad.

Now I’ve read a lot of nothingness in my time, but this is a special class of nothingness, the kind that biblical overtones, orphaning Portia, and seasonal reification can’t save. It’s poorly executed nothingness.

The lack of action was to be offset by Portia’s ‘stormy inner world’, embodied in her diary, and the nuanced interaction of the more sophisticated characters. But Portia’s diary entries, pitched as “distorted and deeply hysterical,” p.10, are on the contrary, inane, impersonal and indistinguishable from the narrator’s monotonous voice.

I am back here, in London. They won’t be back till tomorrow. p.228 (Portia’s diary entry)

Thomas and Anna would not be back from abroad till Friday afternoon. p.229 (Third-person narrator)

The older characters’ conversations strike an equally weak and false note. They soliloquize in each others company or, with very few exception, talk in a sort of rehearsed improvisation, revealing very little of themselves, even when congenially frantic.

‘We know what we think we’ve done, but we still don’t know what we did. What did she expect, and what is she expecting now? It’s not simply a question of getting her home this evening; it’s a question of all three going on living here … Yes, this is a situation. She created it.’

‘No she just acknowledged it. An entirely different thing. She has a point of view.’

‘Well so has everybody. From the outside we may seem worthless, but we are not worthless to ourselves. If one thought what one felt, one would go mad. It does not do to think of what people feel.’

‘I’m afraid in this case we may have to. That is if you are anxious to get her home. Her “right thing” is an absolute of some sort, and absolutes only exist in feeling. There they both are waiting in Kensington. Really you will have to do something soon.’p.308

Then there’s the technically riddled exposition.

I felt repeatedly shat upon from a great height with character development. Portia’s ‘unfortunate’ background was first delivered in pages and pages of stilted conversation between Anna and her ‘old family friend,’ St. Quentin, self-consciously interspersed with “Have I told you all this before?” p.17 and “Does this bore you?” p.19, as if not even Anna (or Bowen, for that matter) is convinced that this is the way to expand Portia’s character. Matchett’s suspiciously detailed and intimate chats with Portia are equally convenient. They were woefully obvious literary devices and instant ‘fail’s.

the majestic elizabeth bowen, 1953

I’m still struggling to reconcile my image of Bowen and Portia, her creation. If The Death of the Heart was written by a man, I’d call him a misogynist, Portia is so terminally silly and melodramatic. More Lilian may have helped, but the technical problems make me doubt it.

I like Bowen, so I really wanted to like this novel; alas, though she was remarkable, The Death of the Heart is terrible.

My regard for Grossman and Lacayo’s Top 100 just took another body blow.

father lucifer-tori amos

the great great gatsby

two words: deco decadence

fitzgerald loved cugat's illustration so much, he wrote the image into the novel

‘The Great Gatsby‘ is a title F. Scott Fitzgerald once dismissed as “weak, since there’s nothing ‘great’ about Gatsby,” (Jan 24, 1925 in a letter to his long-time friend, publisher and mentor, Maxwell Perkins.) He preferred the more modest and honest ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’. Let us all, in unison, thank the book gods he didn’t get his way. The title of this novel is splendidly evocative. The irony is just extra.

The Great Gatsby, a tale set in the summer of 1922 on the twin islands of East and West Egg, New York, is a contemplative recount of the brief but profound friendship between Jay Gatsby and the narrator of the novel, Nick Carraway. Gatsby, a quixotic enigmatic millionaire who nightly throws his arms out to a distant green light across the bay between East and West Egg, and Nick, a laid-back mid-westerner newly come east, partly to explore the bond trade and partly to flee a loveless ‘attachment’, have an instant liking for each other. But neither can foresee the devastating carnage that waylays them in that sticky boozed-up libertine summer.

The Great Gatsby evolves into a caustic critique of the physical and metaphorical divide between old and new money, the inevitable desolation of the self-made man, and the destructive power of greed, deceit and betrayal. With tight witty prose (including hilarious ‘Oggsford’ accents and drunken diatribes), decadent mansions and sweeping landscapes, and vain blindly romantic characters, Fitzgerald effortlessly delivers a breathtaking art-deco masterpiece.

Which makes it all the more staggering that it was a commercial flop when it was first published in 1925.

fitzgerald with his wife and muse, zelda. daisy quotes her when she wishes her daughter to be "a beautiful little fool."

Perhaps The Great Gatsby was swallowed whole by the new craze, i.e. the formless novel. James Joyce had recently dropped Ulysses on the literary world and stream-of-consciousness, peripatetic plots and the ‘serious novel’ were all the rage. A perfectly formed, circular, ‘trivial’ novel like The Great Gatsby may have been doomed, it certainly wasn’t on trend.

The intrepid author, however, knew he had a winner. In another letter to Perkins, Fitzgerald writes,

I think all the reviews I’ve seen have been stupid and lousy. Some day they’ll eat grass. May 22, 1925.

True to his -aah- expressive prophesy, The Great Gatsby has become one of the most celebrated American novels ever written. (Never mind that I’d neither read it nor seen the film adaptations, I knew the name and I’m catching up fast.)

The Great Gatsby is described as definitively Jazz Age, a term Fitzgerald is credited with, and is influential in creating a new wave of sexually empowered women as seen in the epigraph,

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!
(a poem written by one of Fitzgerald’s own fictitious characters, Thomas Parke D’Invilliers, the cheek!) which demonstrates why Fitzgerald is highly revered by musicians and feminists alike, among countless others. Ninety years on, The Great Gatsby continues to inspire writers, illustrators, actors, directors and readers of all ilk: Baz Luhrmann of Moulin Rouge fame, has recently begun directing its fourth screen adaptation with a bonafide stellar cast including Carey Mulligan and Leo DiCaprio;

leo dicaprio, carey mulligan and tobey maguire: cast of the new gatsby adaptation, directed by baz luhrmann

the novel has been used as inspiration in other inter-textual and modernized novels such as Bodega Dreams and The Double Bind; there’s a Gatsby graphic novel; an opera; and even a video game. Which makes it all the more heart-breaking that Fitzgerald, having also written The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, died penniless at 44, believing himself a failure.

Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not when he is dead. The Great Gatsby p.103

So allow me to join Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway in professing the greatness of The Great Gatsby, no irony intended. It is a novel of the short and sweet kind, beautiful in every way, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

i got rhythm-ella fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is available free online.

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.

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,


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…

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.

cowboys and angels-george michael
war-bob marley