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

to read or not to read…

Galactus has finally finished The Origin of Species, a book he’s been reading since November 2009. I’m desperate to give up on Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, but he won’t let me. He says Darwin’s rant in the final chapter is worth the tedium and it may be the same with this novel.

I really hope so, because Theodore Dreiser is truly testing my resolve.


my second-hand $8 copy

I keep At Swim-Two-Birds on tap as without it I’d be a sniveling shell of a reader crouched piteously in a dark corner waiting for a masked author to hack me to pieces. It is my lone promise of comedy for the next ten books or so, which includes the grim reaper himself, Cormac McCarthy with Blood Meridian, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Anthony Burgess’s  A Clockwork Orange.

Which, in turn, led Galactus and me to argue the prevalence of horrors and tragedies on The List. He thinks it’s because ‘critics’ are horrible tragics themselves and I’m loathe to agree. Reference first sentence in post.

A Clockwork Orange is next up because I’m still struggling with the soporific effect of An American Tragedy and I need another short book to remain on target.

I tried A Clockwork Orange many years ago and dismissed it as inaccessible after a few sentences. familialdiscontent urged otherwise and I’m grateful. While the violence is staggering, the tone is brilliant and I’m really enjoying the read. The few Slav words picked up from Galactus’s family, context and this nadsat lexicon solve the access problem.

Here are some juicy tit-bits on A Clockwork Orange:

  1. The title derives from an English adage, ‘to be as queer as a clockwork orange’, which is something appearing natural on the outside, but actually machine on the inside. It alludes to what Alex, the protagonist, will become after ‘corrective’ experimentation.
  2. U.S. publishers originally axed the dénouement to facilitate a ‘less Kennedyan/more Nixonian’ ambiguity. Burgess was not impressed, but caved for the dough. He later commented on his amputated novel, “Life is, of course, terrible,” Resucked, 1986. When I learned this I quickly flipped to the back of my copy to see if it had 20 or 21 chapters. It is, sadly, whole. A deformed novel would have been awesome.

    a clockwork orange film poster, 1971

  3. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation, lead by a very young Malcolm McDowell, is based on the U.S. text. It claims four Oscar nods and is highly recommended by Galactus. I’ve been warned to brace myself, but I’m very keen to see it. It looks the heighth of horrorshow.

    mcdowell as alex, 1971

I gather the novel makes the film seem tame.

would you like that brain scrambled or fried?


I’ve finished 1984 and it’s been two nights of trippy dreams since. I can’t repeat them because frankly, they’re too fucked-up. What I can say is, some things, like imagination and desire, must remain inalienable or we stop being human. All of us.

The running horror of Beloved, 1984 and An American Tragedy, which seems to be alternately building powerful cases for the prosecution and defence of Clyde-the textbook sociopath-Griffiths, has me frazzled…

I need a cuddle session. Stat.

content v. context


I have to find a way to enhance my experience with An American Tragedy or this is going to be my first fail in completing a novel on the list. So I do a quick revision of the form -afterall, ‘tragedy’ is in the title- and who knew!, Aristotelian (The Poetics) and modern theories are my portals to appreciating Dreiser’s work.

Prior to this, I’ve been resolute that books, like wine, should have intrinsic value, should not rely on ‘context’, but I’m wavering: Context helps. While I hope to never get to the point where context becomes ‘everything’, this now obvious revelation is liberating, to say the least.

There is no way I can finish An American Tragedy today, so I’m reading 1984. It is dense, but it is short and I can finish it in a night or two and get back on track.

an american tragedy: so far…

novice prose

So far, An American Tragedy reminds me a little of The Adventures of Augie March -an innocent young man gets caught up in the volition of others, there’s even the mention of Croesus!- but Saul Bellow makes Dreiser look like a novice. The prose is rife with redundancy and disjointing thesaurus-like words, and is almost entirely devoid of the texture created by imagery.

To make matters worse, the moment Clyde forsakes his desperate sister for that silly twit, Hortense, he becomes unsympathetic. It is really difficult to read a book like this.

an american tragedy: pre-read

awesome danish poster of phillips holmes

On closer inspection, I regret picking Theodore Drieser’s An American Tragedy (1925). I dislike true crime ‘fiction’ -Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood bored me to tears. They are invariably less interesting than they first appear, especially when they become bogged down by extant media extracts, reworked ‘evidence’, and drawn out ‘fact-filled’ trials and executions.

But I’ve spent nearly three futile months on the waiting list at the library, crisscrossed the northern suburbs more times than I care to remember searching for a copy, and finally purchased the iBook version for 99¢, so I’m reading it! Even if it’s 1,347 ipages long!

Here are some semi-interesting facts:

  1. An American Tragedy is based on the real crime, upstate New York, 1906, possible accidental drowning probable murder of Grace Brown by one Chester Gillette.
  2. There have been numerous stage adaptations, including an opera.
  3. Match Point, my least favourite Woody Allen flick, starring Johnathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johannson, shares the same plot as the novel.
  4. The novel has been adapted twice on film: Austrian-born director, Josef von Sternberg made a 1931 eponymous version starring Phillips Holmes. It was vehemently rejected by American critics and Drieser himself, and faced a $150,00 libel suit from Grace Brown’s mother. The movie fared better in Europe and has been subtitled in several European languages.
  5. The other film, directed by George Stevens and renamed A Place in the Sun, 1951, had Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift as leads. It won 6 Oscars.

elizabeth taylor & montgomery clift in a place in the sun, 1951


Though still a work in progress, here are the novels that I’ll be reading in 2011.

Struck through titles have been completed.
Bold titles are presently being read.
* indicates reread.

  1. 1984-1948-George Orwell
  2. The Adventures of Augie March-1953-Saul Bellow
  3. All The King’s Men-1946-Robert Penn Warren
  4. American Pastoral-1997-Philip Roth
  5. An American Tragedy-1925-Theodore Dreiser
  6. Animal Farm-1946-George Orwell*
  7. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret-1970-Judy Blume
  8. At Swim-Two-Birds-1938-Flann O’Brien
  9. Atonement-2002-Ian McEwan
  10. Beloved-1987-Toni Morrison*
  11. The Big Sleep-1939-Raymond Chandler
  12. The Blind Assassin-2000-Margaret Atwood
  13. Blood Meridian-1986-Cormac McCarthy
  14. Catch-22-1961-Joseph Heller
  15. The Catcher in the Rye-1951-J.D. Salinger*
  16. A Clockwork Orange-1963-Anthony Burgess
  17. The Corrections-2001-Jonathan Franzen
  18. The Death of the Heart-1958-Elizabeth Bowen
  19. The French Lieutenant’s Woman-1969-John Fowles
  20. Go Tell it on the Mountain-1953-James Baldwin
  21. The Grapes of Wrath-1939-John Steinbeck
  22. The Great Gatsby-1925-F. Scott Fitzgerald
  23. A Handful of Dust-1934-Evelyn Waugh
  24. The Heart is A Lonely Hunter-1940-Carson McCullers
  25. The Heart of the Matter-1948-Graham Greene
  26. Herzog-1964-Saul Bellow
  27. Housekeeping-1981-Marilynne Robinson
  28. I, Claudius-1934-Robert Graves
  29. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe-1950-C. S. Lewis
  30. Lolita-1955-Vladimir Nabokov*
  31. Lord of the Flies-1955-William Golding
  32. Lucky Jim-1954-Kingsley Amis
  33. The Man Who Loved Children-1940-Christina Stead
  34. Midnight’s Children-1981-Salman Rushdie
  35. Mrs. Dalloway-1925-Virginia Woolf
  36. Naked Lunch-1959-William Burroughs
  37. Never Let Me Go-2005-Kazuo Ishiguro
  38. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-1962-Ken Kesey
  39. The Painted Bird-1965-Jerzy Kosinski
  40. A Passage to India-1924-E. M. Forster
  41. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie-1961-Muriel Sparks
  42. Snow Crash-1992-Neal Stephenson
  43. The Sound and the Fury-1929-William Faulkner
  44. The Sun Also Rises-1926-Ernest Hemingway
  45. Super Sad True Love Story-2010-Gary Shteyngart
  46. Things Fall Apart-1959-Chinua Achebe*
  47. To the Lighthouse-1927-Virginia Woolf
  48. Ubik-1969-Phillip Dick
  49. Ulysses-1922-James Joyce
  50. Under The Net-1954-Iris Murdoch
  51. Under The Volcano-1947-Malcolm Lowry
  52. Watchmen-1986-Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons*
  53. White Teeth-2000-Zadie Smith*
  54. Wide Sargasso Sea-1966-Jean Rhys*