book review: timequake

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

This is the first novel by Kurt Vonnegut that I have read.  To be honest, I have no idea what made me pick up Timequake, but I’m sure it has something to do with my perception that Vonnegut is one of those authors I should read.  This book has been on my bookshelf for several years now (how many, I have no idea, but it’s been awhile).  I decided to try to read the book again, this time from start to finish.  I was successful and did get to the end, but not because I was at all interested in the ending.

I’m getting ahead of myself, and that is likely because it’s time to summarize the plot, and I’m not exactly sure how to do that.  Mostly because there really isn’t much of a plot to speak of, at least not what most readers recognize as a plot.  On February 17, 2001, the entire world experienced a timequake, sending everyone to 1991 and forcing humans to relive the previous ten years of their lives.  Vonnegut (who is both author and narrator) explains that the timequake occurred because the Universe was indecisive about whether or not it should keep expanding.  The thing about the timequake is that free will has been completely erased—during the “rerun” everyone has to do the exact same thing they had done previously.  Nothing can be altered or changed, and consequently apathy has set in.   Kilgore Trout—the old science fiction writer who is one of Vonnegut’s characters—refers to that time as being on “autopilot”.  When the timequake ends ten years later on the second February 13, 2001, everyone in the world experiences “Post-Timequake Apathy” or PTA.  Humans have become so used to not having free will and living on autopilot, that they don’t care about anything and have no will to do anything.  It takes the efforts of Kilgore Trout, through the mantra, “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do,” to wake everyone up, and the mantra comes to be known as the Kilgore Creed.  Interestingly, this helps Vonnegut turn his isolated, man alone character into, if not a hero, then certainly an anti-hero.

The novel is clearly satire, and it takes aim at several topics.  One such topic is the value of books and reading, particularly as opposed to the value of television.  Vonnegut builds a thoughtful commentary upon what is at stake when books and the printed word give way to the medium of television as well as the digital age.  Another topic that he targets is the value of extended families, and not just blood relations, but families in the sense of communities, and what is lost when an individual is not part of this kind of extended family.  Indeed, part of the story as it concerns Kilgore Trout seems to be showing how he goes from being isolated to being part of a family.  Still another focus of his satire is the division of wealth and those amendments he would make to the Constitution guaranteeing what he argues are basic human rights.  There is also a compelling commentary upon religion and its value to the individual that I would not have expected to find in a Vonnegut novel.  The “Post-Timequake Apathy” adds another layer to the satire and of course is intended to prompt the reader to think about his or her own apathy and attempt to shake his readers out of that apathy.  He wants his readers to care.  He wants his readers to believe that life is worth living, but that it takes participation from everyone in society to build a better society.  Vonnegut’s novel succeeds in challenging the status quo and advocating for change.  Indeed, if I were teaching this novel in one of my literature classes, I would highlight the ways in which Timequake uses the power that the form of the novel possesses to critique social and political structures of power.

Although I can appreciate the novel on the level of satire, and at the risk of alienating Vonnegut fans, I have to admit that the novel was a disappointing read for me.  The first question I asked myself upon completing the novel was if all Vonnegut novels are like this?  Slaughterhouse-Five is on my to-read list, but now I’m in no hurry to check it off.  I don’t mind literature that uses satire to make social and political commentary; at the same time, I want my satire to have more of a story.  Or perhaps what I should really say is that my expectations didn’t match up with what I got from the novel.  I wasn’t expecting it to be semi-autobiographical, and I wasn’t expecting the first-person, almost diary-like narrative style that Vonnegut employs in the novel.  As a narrator and character in his own story, Vonnegut has an engaging voice, but at no point in the novel was I really invested in the narrative.  I finished reading the novel because my goal was to finish the book, not really because I cared all that much how it ended.  Oddly, I don’t even think I had the hope that maybe I would start to like it.

As I said above, this is my first introduction to the Vonnegut canon of work.  I will, someday, give Slaughterhouse-Five a try, and hope for a more favorable response, but someday won’t be coming anytime soon.  On a five-star scale, Timequake receives only one-star from this reader, and that’s only because zero-stars isn’t an option.

review: the talented mr. ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

I’m not exactly sure what my expectations were before I started reading The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, and I haven’t seen the 1999 film version with Matt Damon and Jude Law, so I didn’t already “know” the story.   What I can say is that I am glad I have discovered Patricia Highsmith and whatever my expectations were, I wasn’t disappointed.

The story follows Tom Ripley, a twenty-three year old man basically living in poverty in New York City. Tom is homeless, jobless, and practically friendless.  He’s an orphan who was raised by his father’s sister, but they do not have a good relationship and Tom does not like her.  She sends him checks for strange dollar amounts, and though Tom despises the crumbs that she sends him, he is also financially dependent on them.  Tom is a small-time con artist, and at the beginning of the story he is engaged in IRS tax fraud.  He’s paranoid that his petty crimes will be discovered, as evidenced on the first page, where he notices a man following him.  He wonders if the police have come to arrest him, but the man introduces himself as Herbert Greenleaf.  Mr. Greenleaf has been told that Tom and his son, Dickie, were friends prior to his son leaving the States and travelling abroad in Europe.  It is upon this friendship that Mr. Greenleaf eventually comes to ask Tom if he will go to Italy, where Dickie is currently living, and convince him to come home.  Dickie’s father owns a boat-building company and his mother is suffering from leukemia.  Dickie’s father wants his son to come home, take his place in the company as the heir-apparent, and live a “normal” life rather than the life of an expatriate artist.  Tom ultimately agrees to try to help Mr. Greenleaf and travels to Italy.  The first meeting between Tom and Dickie is awkward because they weren’t really good friends to begin with. Also, Dickie has developed a close relationship with Marge Sherwood, another American expatriate.  Tom likes and admires Dickie and wants to be his friend.  Tom looks a lot like Dickie—they are the same height and just about the same weight.  They have the same color hair and facial features.  Tom could be Dickie’s doppelganger.  Indeed, this is one of the tropes Highsmith’s novel turns upon—Tom as Dickie’s dark double who slowly begins to unravel then rewrite Dickie Greenleaf’s life.

Highsmith has crafted a wonderful anti-hero in Tom Ripley.  Tom is indeed talented—he adapts quickly, has a capacity for languages, is a consummate observer, is good with numbers, and can employ logic and reason even in the most stressful situations.  Tom went to New York because he wanted to be an actor.  That dream wasn’t realized in the States, but the life he lives in Italy gives him the opportunity to become an actor and perform for his imagined audiences.  It is perhaps the constant drive to perform that causes his thing with mirrors.  Yes, Tom Ripley has a thing with mirrors.  You can’t help picking up on this as you read the first few chapters (and I wonder if this is something the film develops).  He is always checking himself out in a mirror, looking at his clothes, his facial expression, the carriage of his body.  Along with being able to play different roles as necessary, Tom can invent plausible stories (read: lies) for the police and for others in his life as necessary; Tom believes that they are true and because of this, he is able to convince others that what he is saying is true.  No one ever seems to call Tom on any of his lies.  The other thing about Tom is that he has, until arriving in Italy, lived on the fringes and margins of society. Financial stability isn’t something he’s ever known, and one of the statements the novel is making is that the structure of society alienates and isolates men like Tom Ripley and forces them to extreme measures.  Thus, Tom views his actions as being done out of necessity, and this adds complexity to his character because as readers, we have enough distance from Tom that we don’t completely identify with him but not so much distance that we can’t sympathize with him.  Is Tom Ripley a sociopathic anti-hero? Absolutely, but that only makes him more interesting.  I’ve read statements that Tom Ripley is one of the great anti-heroes in literature and I completely agree with that statement.  He may be amoral and his actions are unconscionable, and yet…he frustrates attempts to fully condemn him, and I think that says more about me as a reader than anything else.

Though the focus of the novel remains primarily upon Tom, the character of Marge Sherwood draws my attention, too.  As a supporting character, Marge is obviously intended to be a source of conflict and antagonism for Tom.  She is also intended to highlight certain aspects of Tom’s character and thereby increase his complexity and reveal his motives.  I wonder, though, if Marge was intended to be somewhat autobiographical, too.  She is an American woman living in Europe and writing a book, and from what I know of Highsmith’s biography, she likely had similar experiences.  Marge exists on the margins of the novel; on the one hand, she’s an example of the growing opportunities available to women (like Dickie, she is travelling abroad and living alone in Europe while engaging in a form of artistic expression she hopes to turn into a career) but on the other hand, she is completely deceived by Tom. Again, she’s not the main character of the story but her placement in the novel intrigues me and makes me wonder what Highsmith might have been trying to say through her character.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I definitely recommend it to readers who like suspense, tension, and well-drawn characters in their fiction.

review: high fidelity

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (1995)

An intriguing fun fact: High Fidelity is a first novel.  I read Juliet, Naked last year and thought it was okay but not great, and got about halfway through A Long Way Down before putting it down and never picking it back up.  I have wanted to love a Nick Hornby novel, and finally High Fidelity has filled that particular (strange?) bibliophilic desire.  I loved this novel.  Loved it.  The question I asked myself after finishing it was why had it taken me so long to read it?

The story is told through the first-person narrative of Rob Fleming, a 35-year-old bachelor who has just broken up with longtime girlfriend, Laura.  The first part of the novel, the “THEN” part, reads like a kind of prologue, in which Rob lists his top five breakups.  This part imagines Laura as the intended reader or as though he’s speaking directly to her.  Rob is emphatic in his declaration that Laura doesn’t make this list, but methinks the man doth protest too much.  Chapter One then begins the “NOW” section of the novel, and one of the interesting things about it is that it is written in present tense.  It’s like we’re in Rob’s head, hearing his thoughts and listening in on his conversations as they happen.  The memories of his top five breakups drive Rob into sustained self-reflection as he tries to work out why those relationships didn’t work out, even as he is trying to make sense of his relationship with Laura.

Rob also owns a record store (yes, actual records) called Championship Vinyl.  Even as he is thinking about his past, his present, and his future in terms of romantic relationships, he is also reflecting on where he is professionally.  His store is on the edge of failing, and he’s not sure that he wants to save it.  He feels that his professional life is a failed relationship and uninterrupted inertia.  Rob is drifting through life but going nowhere, and yet at the same time he’s stuck in place, unable to move forward or let go of the past.  Although he loves music, he continues to ask himself if listening to pop music makes him miserable, or if he’s miserable because he listens to pop music.  He meditates on the power of film, music, and fiction to shape our identities and expectations, and he recognizes, too, that such creative arts provide individuals with a way of expressing emotions that they can’t otherwise put into words.  Rob’s incessant penchant for making top 5 lists is driven by his inability to express himself in any other way.

I taught this novel in one of my literature courses, and I suggested to my students that one of the primary themes of the novel is letting go.  This to me is one of the main sources of tension in the novel.  Rob has held onto these breakups and allowed them to define him and his point of view, but ultimately he has to let go of the regret, the pain, and the misunderstandings because if he doesn’t, he’ll never be able to move forward and have a successful relationship.  I also don’t think that Rob’s age is a coincidence.  He’s definitely having a mid-life crisis, but what gives the narrative so much power and force is that it’s painfully, unflinchingly honest.  Rob isn’t one of those self-deluding, unreliable narrators.  He doesn’t censor himself out of some fear of discovering something within or about himself that he doesn’t want to face.  The narration is wildly funny at times and I laughed aloud on numerous occasions to the point that my eyes started watering, but at the same time I felt myself identifying with his uncertainty and disillusionment.  One of my students said that Rob is lost, and I totally agree, and the narrative is that much more affecting because I know exactly how that feels.  Rob is like so many of us who is just trying to figure out how he got where he is and where does he go now? Where does he belong and will there be an end to the loneliness he feels or will he finally find love, happiness and a lasting relationship.  There’s nothing particularly special about Rob but I was completely invested in his story and how it was all going to end.

Now, don’t get the wrong impression.  Rob is far from perfect.  He’s misogynistic, selfish, self-absorbed and egotistical.  He’s that person in your life who thinks his taste in music is superior to yours.  He’s a flawed character, and there’s no getting around it.  But…but in spite of his flaws I liked him and wanted him to finally figure it all out and make the “right” choices so that he might be able to have the happiness he wants so much.  Would I want to date Rob Fleming? Probably not. Do I see a lot of him in myself? Absolutely.  This is good and bad, but in the end it makes him a realistic and completely believable character.

Is it okay if I repeat that I loved this book? I loved this book, and I wonder if part of this is because I’m close to Rob’s age and closely identified with his character.  It’s my opinion that the effect a book has on us is sometimes dependent upon where we are in our lives when we read them.  I’m not sure that my reaction to this book would have been the same if I had read it five years ago, much less ten years ago, and so maybe it’s okay that I’m just now reading it for the first time.  Still, I highly recommend this book.  It’s a wonderful first novel that has a lot of energy, humor, and hope.  High Fidelity is definitely on my top five list of favorite reads of 2012.

review: loitering with intent

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark (1981)

I discovered Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark by accident last year when I was reviewing novels to teach in a class focused on the 20th century British novel.  I just completed my third reading of this book, and with each reading I like it more and more.

The protagonist of the novel is Fleur Talbot.  Fleur is writing her memoir, and the specific period of time she is recounting is the middle of the twentieth century, from September 1949 to June 30, 1950.  As she unfolds the events of the past, we learn that it was during this time that Fleur was writing her first novel, Warrender Chase.  Because she wasn’t yet a successful, published author, it was in September 1949 that she found herself in need of a job, and her search leads to a secretarial position with the Autobiographical Association, established and led by Sir Quentin Oliver.  Fleur explains that the purpose of the members of the Autobiographical Association is to write their memoirs and once completed, to lock them away for seventy years in order to avoid any accusations of libel.  One of Fleur’s responsibilities is to edit the drafts of the memoirs, but she takes the liberty of “livening up” the memoirs by adding events, details, and people that never really happened or existed.  Though the writers at first find the changes disturbing, they eventually allow and accept them to the point that they begin to believe fiction to be reality.  Further still, the nature of Fleur’s own autobiography becomes questionable when we come to learn of the two autobiographies she admires most—that of John Henry Newman which she calls a “beautiful piece of poetic paranoia” and that of Benvenuto Cellini which appears to embellish the truth to the extent that it is difficult to believe everything in it to be true.  Consequently, the reader questions whether Fleur’s autobiography is a piece of poetic paranoia or if it is embellished to the point of fabrication.  Or is it a little of both?  These threads of the narrative allow Spark to deliberately blur the line between fact and fiction and question the nature of autobiography.

The line between fact and fiction is further blurred by Fleur as she relates the creation and evolution of her first novel, Warrender Chase.  As the story continues, it becomes difficult to be sure if Fleur is telling us the truth when she claims that none of the characters or the plot of her novel were inspired by Sir Quentin, his mother Lady Edwina, or the members of the Autobiographical Association.  Particularly when Sir Quentin and the Autobiographical Association begin to act out some of the events that occur in Warrender Chase.  It is also difficult to determine if Fleur has not only written a work of fiction but also created the “real” individuals that populate her memoir. Throughout the story, Fleur tells her friend Dottie that she could have invented Sir Quentin, and even Dottie becomes a character type for Fleur—an English Rose—a character type that appears in her novel.  The result is that readers not only question whether or not Fleur, who is writing her memoir, is actually a reliable narrator but also what parts of Fleur’s memoir are fact and which parts are fiction.  The answers to these questions are certainly left up to the interpretation of the reader.

Beyond the questions of what is real and what is fantasy, Fleur Talbot is a wonderful example of an emerging modern woman of the 20th century.  In fact, Fleur’s refusal to submit to male dominance and traditional expectations for women makes her a refreshing character in terms of how women placed within a mid-20th century setting are typically represented.  She is career-oriented, ambitious, and focused upon success and achieving her goals, and though she is not by any stretch “perfect” and some readers will question her morality, she’s appealing as a character, and her characterization is one of the many strengths of the novel.

Another of those strengths is the way Fleur reflects upon her development as a writer.  More than once she remarks on how wonderful it was to be a woman and a writer in the middle of the twentieth century.  As I was teaching this book last week, I contemplated whether this novel fits into the category of a Kunstlërroman (“novel of the artist”).  We don’t see Fleur’s coming of age and development as an artist from childhood, so perhaps in the strictest sense it doesn’t fit this category.  And yet, I want to put it in this category.  Fleur’s recollections about writing her first novel and how she sees herself as a consummate observer of human experiences and emotions so that she can incorporate those into her fiction offers an interesting look at how Fleur understands the craft of writing (and, I suspect this applies to Spark as well).  For someone who writes, it’s an interesting look into how one person (even a fictional person) finds inspiration.

Loitering with Intent is definitely one of my recommended reads.  The story is entertaining and neither Fleur nor the novel takes itself too seriously; and yet at the same time the complexity of the interlocking narratives, the ambiguous line between fact and fiction, and the presence of a strong protagonist make it easy for me to see why this novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  I will say that getting my hands on this book proved a bit of challenge initially, but if you can find a copy, give it a try.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

review: the unicorn

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch (1963)

“Everyone here is involved in guilt.”

The Unicorn is the first novel by Iris Murdoch that I have read.  The narrative weaves in elements of the Gothic, the allegorical, and the mythical, and it does so within the framework of suspense.  There’s a lot going on in this novel, and by the end, Murdoch leaves it up to the reader to determine what it all means.  Some readers will be frustrated by Murdoch’s ambiguity and that the meaning of the story is open to a wide variety of interpretations.

The story begins when Marian Taylor, a thirty-year-old former schoolteacher, arrives at Gaze Castle to perform the duties of governess.  When she arrives, she learns that she is not to be a governess, but instead a lady’s companion to Hannah Crean-Smith, owner of the big house in what is presumably the Irish countryside.  Gaze and the surrounding lands are repeatedly characterized as being ancient, alien, and isolating, and its inhabitants and their ways are more akin to people living in medieval times, not a mid-20th century Western society.  Perhaps the epitome of this is that upon Marian’s arrival at the train station, she searches for a way to get to Gaze and someone recommends that she travel there by horse.  Arriving at Gaze is like going back in time, and it frightens Marian.  What worries her most though is the revelation that for the last seven years, Hannah has been effectively imprisoned at Gaze by her husband, Peter Crean-Smith.  The other inhabitants of the house—Gerald Scottow, Violet Evercreech, Jamesie Evercreech, and Denis Nolan—are her jailers.  Marian wants to help Hannah escape from Gaze, and the question of how to release Hannah from her prison drives much of the plot.

The narrative structure of the novel offers the events of the story through two points of view—Marian’s and Effingham Cooper’s.  Effingham (or Effie) is a frequent visitor at Riders, the only other house within miles of Gaze.  Riders is the home of Effie’s mentor, Max Lejour, and his adult children, Alice and Pip.  Alice has been in love with Effie for years, but he’s paid no attention to her though his egoism is such that he hasn’t spurned her entirely.  Effie, like Marian, is an outsider, and he fancies himself to be in love with Hannah.  Although he is an outsider, he also shares in the guilt of keeping Hannah prisoner in the form of inaction and because he likes the idea of Hannah being sequestered and shut-up, deluding himself into thinking that she is being shut-up just for him.  At last, Marian convinces Effie to help her break Hannah out of the prison-house.  The consequences of this attempt, the reasons for Hannah’s imprisonment, the meaning of Hannah’s suffering, and the ways in which the characters respond to that suffering and see it as being significant, drive the plot to its somewhat ambiguous climax and conclusion.

The title of the novel is an image that finds its figurative representation in the character of Hannah.  Through a conversation between Max and Effie, we are told that the unicorn is a Christ-like image in that it is an innocent creature that is captured and turned into a scapegoat, sacrificed to purge away the sins and crimes of others.  This is the allegorical aspect of the novel, but this is a modern allegory in that the meaning of Hannah’s suffering is not interpreted for us.  As readers we have to decide what her suffering means, if it means anything at all.  Iris Murdoch doesn’t tell readers what to think in this novel, and I like that.  On the other hand, I did find the novel a bit frustrating.  In order to leave the interpretation of the story up to the reader, there has to be a certain level of ambiguity.  It’s that very ambiguity, however, that I find frustrating.  There were several moments when I wasn’t all sure what had just happened or what was going on.  Admittedly, while this irked me, it kept me turning the page, and after finishing the novel, I still find myself thinking about it and puzzling it through and modifying my interpretation of the story.  I’ve always thought that that was one mark of a great book, so on that level the story succeeds in capturing my interest and making me think.

On the other hand, while The Unicorn made me think, I’m not sure how much I liked it.  Because we get the story through two different points of view, there’s an element of psychological realism in the novel. We get to see how everything that is happening is impacting the psyches of both characters.  We spend a lot of time in each person’s head, and so there are a lot of interior monologues throughout the novel, and less dialogue.  I found this to be a bit tedious, though why exactly I can’t say because normally this doesn’t bother me in a novel.  Perhaps I just didn’t find Marian and Effie’s thoughts to be sufficiently interesting, or maybe it’s that I wasn’t as invested in them as characters.  I understand the purpose of multiple points of view, but I wonder if I would have felt more engaged if there had only been one.  When rating this novel elsewhere I gave it two of five stars, and now that it’s time for me to decide whether or not I would recommend it to other readers, I’m still conflicted and undecided.  While I enjoyed teaching this novel in a college literature course and I got good response to it from a handful of students, I don’t think I would recommend it to friends.  In fact, I would recommend a lot of other books before even thinking about The Unicorn.  In the end, I’m glad I can finally say that I’ve read a novel by Iris Murdoch, but I’m not exactly rushing to the bookstore to purchase another.

review: the quickening maze

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds (2009)

The Quickening Maze belongs to the genre of historical fiction.  It takes actual events in the lives of its three primary characters—English poets John Clare and Alfred, Lord Tennyson and medical doctor Matthew Allen—and fictionalizes those events.  According to the back cover and the acknowledgements, the events in the novel are historically accurate.

But my first task is to summarize what the novel is about. Tennyson and his brother, Septimus, arrive in the community where Dr. Matthew Allen runs an asylum, in which John Clare is institutionalized.  Septimus is to be a patient of Allen’s and committed to the asylum, and Tennyson is there to…well, it seems that he is there to be near his brother as well as write some poetry.  This is a young Tennyson who has yet to receive literary achievement, notoriety, or the position of Poet Laureate of England.  It is six years after the death of his close friend, Arthur Hallam, and the narrative suggests that Tennyson’s time in Allen’s community, his acute grief and remembrance of Arthur, and the setting may have inspired him to write Idylls of the King.  Dr. Allen and Tennyson become friends, but Allen’s great desire is to leave behind the work of the director of an asylum and embark upon some new adventure that will make him a fortune.  He finally hits upon this adventure—he will create a machine that will enable mass production of furniture made by master craftsmen that can be sold at a fraction of the cost.  Upon designing this scheme, Allen sinks his entire life savings into the venture and also secures funding from Tennyson and his family, whose investments come from an inheritance left to them by their father.  He also secures a whole host of other investment capital (indeed, Allen is a kind of charismatic, Victorian venture capitalist). As Allen becomes more and more engaged with this business scheme, the daily running of the asylum is given to a man named Stockdale, a kind of foreman, Allen’s son, Fulton, and his wife, Eliza.  Needless to say, a series of horrors and atrocities are perpetrated within the asylum upon the patients, unbeknownst to Allen. Running parallel to this story is that of John Clare, “the peasant poet” who is slowly descending more deeply into insanity even as he longs for his freedom from the institution.  Parallel to that is the story of Allen’s daughter, Hannah, who imagines herself to be in love with Tennyson and tries to secure his affections and a marriage proposal, but a relationship between them fails to materialize.

If my summary of the novel seems to be a bit disjointed, that’s because the novel itself, at least in my opinion, is disjointed and wandering.  Part of this is a function of the narrative style, which is admittedly my least favorite. The narrative jumps from the interiority of one character to another and then another, most often taking the form of interior monologue, where we get to hear the thoughts and opinions of the character whose mind we are in at that moment.  Anyone who has read A Game of Thrones understands what I mean (though The Quickening Maze doesn’t offer the clarity of separating these transitions into chapters and identifying the name of the character who is narrating that chapter).  It appears to me that the reason Foulds has chosen to implement this narrative style is so that he can tell multiple narratives from multiple perspectives (if I were characterizing him for my students, I’d call his style postmodernist in nature). Thus the novel has many different threads—Dr. Allen’s business scheme, Tennyson’s grief and his struggle to write, John Clare’s struggle with sanity and his desire for escape, Hannah’s pursuit of Tennyson, and other threads I haven’t mentioned her for brevity.  This is what makes the novel problematic for me—there are too many different threads and I didn’t feel invested in any of them.  Additionally, the multi-perspectival narrative style prohibits me from feeling any attachment or identification with any of the characters.  In fact, I found myself turning the pages so that I could get to the end, not because I was especially interested in the ending, in any of the characters, or how their lives turned out.  I think the multi-perspectival narrative style can work (such as in Last Orders by Graham Swift) but it has to be handled well, and it isn’t handled well here.  There’s too much distance between the reader and the characters.  My thought is that this novel would have improved exponentially if there had been one unifying, omnipotent, third-person narrator.

Another complaint that I have about the novel is all of the multiple references to defecation.  Okay, I get it—the author wanted the novel to be realistic in nature, and perhaps these moments were intended to be comic relief, but I didn’t find them at all amusing, and they didn’t add anything to the narrative.  I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded reader and I’m not a prudish or snobbish reader, but after the third, fourth…eighth seemingly pointless reference, I really had had enough.

The thing is, I really wanted to like this book, and I try to find one good thing to say about every book I review.  This book has been on my to-read list for quite awhile.  The idea—fictionalizing a moment in the life of Alfred, Lord Tennyson—I thought was a brilliant one.  The execution, though, was seriously lacking, and none of my expectations were met.  As I kept reading, I kept hoping that the end of the novel would redeem itself, but instead it became more and more predictable, and more and more disappointing.  The lack of tension and conflict between characters and within the plot made for an uninteresting read.  In the end, I’m left wondering how The Quickening Maze made it to the Shortlist for the Booker Prize. If the novel is on your to-read list, might I suggest skipping it and moving on to something else.

review: a scanner darkly

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (1977)

It’s taken me some time to write this review.  I like to start these reviews by giving a brief synopsis of the novel, but getting down in one short paragraph what this novel is about has been a challenge.  A Scanner Darkly follows the story of Fred, an undercover narcotics agent living in Southern California.  Fred’s true identity is supposed to be a secret from everyone, even his handler at the police department, Hank.  In order to maintain his anonymity, Fred meets Hank in a “scramble suit” that continuously scrambles his exterior features, obtaining such characteristics as eye and hair color and other facial features from a database containing millions of possibilities.  Fred’s job is to gather information on and eventually bring to justice various drug dealers, specifically those who deal in Substance D, which alters a person’s brain to the point that it separates his or her left and right hemispheres and ultimately leads to brain death.  Early in the narrative, Hank tasks Fred with the job of conducting surveillance on a man that the police believe may be a major player in the Substance D drug trade—Bob Arctor.  Bob Arctor shares a house with two other “heads”—Barris and Luckman—and he has an unrequited love for Donna, also a drug addict.  The wrinkle is that Fred is Bob Arctor, and so his job is to conduct surveillance on himself.  In his identity as Bob Arctor, he is also addicted to Substance D.  As the narrative unfolds, Fred begins to suffer the effects of Substance D to the point that he forgets that he and Arctor are one and the same person.  One of the primary means of surveillance are “holo-scanners” and as Fred begins to watch the surveillance tapes from the scanners, he comes to see Bob Arctor—the man in the surveillance tapes—as his dark image.  It is in this way that Dick plays upon the biblical verse from I Corinthians 13 which talks of seeing “through a glass darkly.”

The wonderful thing about A Scanner Darkly is that it is making meaning on so many different levels.  On one level, it is a social commentary on how drug addicts are perceived in our culture.  Dick is exploring the ways in which drug lords are able to manipulate supply and demand in order to make money and how these drug lords ruthlessly profit from their customers, unconcerned about the life-altering affects of the drugs they push. While Dick’s commentary is on the drug trade, it can apply to so many other aspects of our contemporary life—pharmaceuticals is the first thing that comes to mind.  So this novel, though published in 1977, is still culturally relevant.

On another level, the novel is exploring questions of identity.  Fred is Bob Arctor, but his ability to remember that fact breaks down as the story progresses as a result of his addiction to Substance D.  His left and right hemispheres separate entirely and fail to communicate but instead compete with each other, so that Fred and Arctor—instead of working together to avoid capture—become adversaries.  In the last fifty pages of the novel or so, Fred receives another identity, and this further complicates his ability to know who he is as well as define his identity.  Another thing that complicates Fred’s identity is the scramble suit.  While wearing it, the image reflected in a mirror is not his own, further distorting his sense of his own identity.  For Fred, identity is fluid, changeable, and available for manipulation, and once he loses his identity as Bob Arctor, he effectively loses a part of himself.  Indeed, it seems as though Dick is playing with that “what if” question that Robert Louis Stevenson was playing with in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—what if we could divorce our “better” half from our “worse” half?  What would happen?  I wouldn’t call this a Jekyll and Hyde story, but shades of that story do resonate through A Scanner Darkly.

On still another level, A Scanner Darkly is a dystopian fiction.  The story itself is set in 1992, fifteen years in the future.  This device allows Dick to imagine how a drug as deadly and widely abused as Substance D could impact a society and have a forceful effect on the norms and values of that society.  It also acts as a cautionary tale and encourages the reader to consider how other addictions—chemical or not—effectively trap and keep its victim in bondage.

I picked up this book because I am in the early stages of planning an introductory level literature course for Spring 2013.  My initial title for the course is “From Page to Screen” and the course would give students the chance to read the text upon which its film counterpart was based.  I’m not sure I would have picked this book up otherwise, but I’m glad that I did.  Dick’s narrative style here is perfectly suited to the story that he’s telling.  We get the story (mostly) through Fred’s perspective, and as his brain begins to suffer the effects of Substance D and his ability to discern his full reality disintegrates, so too does his ability to narrate in a coherent fashion break down.  It doesn’t go into stream of consciousness, but it does alter, and as a reader I felt my own level of confusion at the same time that Fred himself (or Bob Arctor) was also confused about what was happening.  He loses the ability to know what is real and what isn’t, and as readers, we experience the same difficulty.  For me, that’s one of the things that makes this novel brilliant.

A Scanner Darkly is definitely one of my Recommended Reads.  I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it, but I do think it will make you think, and isn’t that one of the things a good book should accomplish?

 

review: the infinities

The Infinities by John Banville (2009)

“Everything blurs around its edges, everything seeps into everything else.  Nothing is separate” (65).

This novel has been on my to-read list for a while, and the first response to that statement might very well be “Why?”.  I have read two other novels by John Banville—The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable.  Both books have a narrative style that take a while to get accustomed to, but once entrenched in the fictional world his frequently unreliable narrators reveal, I find that I want to keep turning the page to see what happens next.  It is true that some readers may find Banville’s narrators reprehensible or unappealing, but as much as this may or may not be the case, the one thing I can say for them is that, for my part, they are all entertaining and complex.  I don’t have to like the narrator to like the narrative.  I think of myself as a fan of Banville’s work, and so I have wanted to read The Infinities since finding it on the shelf at my local bookstore.  Now that I have read it, I find that I am struggling to articulate what I think of the book.

The Infinities gives us a narrator who is, on the surface, the mythological god Hermes (or Mercury, if you will).  Yet, it becomes clear as the narrative unfolds that the narrator is not just Hermes, but also Adam Godley (père), who at the beginning of the novel is comatose after suffering a second stroke and lying on his deathbed at the top of Arden, his family home, in what the inhabitants call the Sky Room and what was previously Adam’s office.  Petra, his daughter, Adam, his son, and his son’s wife, Helen, have come home to attend upon Adam whose death is imminent.  Ursula, Adam’s wife, is also present and waiting upon him.  Banville attributes qualities to some of these characters that are easily recognizable within the mythological allegory he seems to be weaving—Adam at one time wanted to be a gardener (like the first Adam); Helen takes after that other famous Helen whose beauty launched a thousand ships and is pursued throughout the narrative by Zeus, father of the gods; even Ursula is compared to Hera at one point.  About halfway through the novel, the god Pan arrives mysteriously at Arden, and he and Hermes are placed in opposition to each other, the former seeking to create disturbance and the latter seeking to bring order from chaos.  As the narrative unfolds, the mortals (the Godleys, their servants, and one of their guests, Roddy Wagstaff) become the sport of the gods in some way or another, to the point that it is the meddling of the various gods—namely Hermes, Pan, and Zeus—that bring the characters to their “happy” ending.

There are two things that I think make this novel clever.  One is the persistent shifting of the identity of the narrator from Hermes to Adam to Hermes.  This permeability of identity points to one of the main ideas the novel is engaging, suggested by the quote above—that nothing is separate.  Hermes and Adam are not wholly separate entities, and thus we get the slippage that occurs in the text when we’re not sure who is speaking—Hermes or Adam.  Indeed, we come to believe that Hermes is Adam, and Adam is Hermes.  This leads me to the second thing that I like about this novel, which is the way that Banville is playing with the answer to an age old question—where does one thing end and another thing begin?  He does this by doubling his characters—Adam (père) and his son, Adam share the same name and is the most obvious instance.  Banville also doubles Helen and her mythological namesake, Helen of Troy; but it gets more complex and more difficult to distinguish between one thing and another when he doubles Hermes and Adam (père), Hermes and Zeus, Adam (père) and Zeus, and those are only a handful of examples.  Early in the novel the question is raised: “Was everything in the world so intricately linked and yet resistantly disparate?” (63).  This is a question that the novel, in an interesting way, is trying to answer, and how this question engages with the former idea—that nothing is separate but instead one thing flows into another thing—is the level on which I think the novel is completely fascinating.

While I think the novel is clever in the two ideas (or questions, or themes, however you want to label them) that hover over the narrative, I’m not sure that the novel works.  I happened to get a glance of a review of this book where the reviewer stated that the characters weren’t very likable.  Again, I don’t have to like the characters to like the book.  What I do think is faulty about the characters is that I’m not really invested in most of them.  I enjoyed Hermes/Adam as the narrator, seeing what they saw when they looked at the events taking place in Arden.  If I had taught this novel in one of my literature classes, some students would likely say that nothing happens in this novel.  For me, my complaint is not that nothing happens, but rather that I don’t care much about what happens.  This is complicated by the narrative style.  While I like the narrative style, it also further distances me as the reader from the characters, to the point that I didn’t feel any particular attachment to the characters or what was happening to them as they awaited the anticipated event—Adam’s death.

I always ask myself if I would recommend a book to friends and family.  Unfortunately, The Infinities does not make it into my “recommend” category.  There are many aspects of this book that I found thoughtful and provocative, but on the whole, my expectations were disappointed.