For a variety of reasons, I fell behind on book reviews in December, so I’m cheating a little with an omnibus post on everything I read between Thanksgiving and New Year’s that I haven’t written up yet, aside from the usual Wodehouse/Christie/Stout stuff I generally don’t cover here. I had pretty mixed feelings on all of these works except the one non-fiction title, which is probably part of why I procrastinated on the reviews – it’s easier to write something quickly when you know which way you’re leaning from the start, but these books had enough positives and negatives to keep me from coming down on either side.
* The longest book I read in that span, and the one most deserving of a longer writeup, is Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, part of the TIME 100 and #81 on the Modern Library 100. Tabbed “the great American novel” by Martin Amis, praised by authors from Amis to his father Kingsley to Salman Rushdie to Christopher Hitchens, Augie March is an ambitious, expansive story of its title character’s growth from an impoverished Chicago childhood through one money-chasing scheme after another, including various brushes with the law and materialistic women. It starts slowly, hits a promising note for several hundred pages, and then ends with a gigantic whimper that ruined an otherwise enjoyable serious yet comical read for me.
Augie’s odyssey of self-discovery while he’s trying to make a buck – or a pile of bucks – draws him into various webs of fascinating side characters, a panoply identified by Hitchens as Dickensian, but one I think comes from the broader tradition of picaresque novels (to which Dickens contributed in The Pickwick Papers) and that continues through postmodern works like Ulysses and The Recognitions and later writers like Dawn Powell, Haruki Murakami, and Richard Russo. Augie March even has the peripatetic thread that defines the picaresque novel, even though Augie’s adventures, like his brief but disastrous time in the Navy, rarely encompass the high ambitions of classic picaresque characters.
Augie himself straddles the line between hero and antihero – he’s the protagonist and quite likeable despite his highly fungible morality, in part because he’s got the rags-to-riches vibe about him and in part because he entertains us through one peculiar situation after another – creating a curious ambiguity about Bellow’s point. If this is to be the great American novel, what exactly is Bellow telling us about the American experience? Is the key to the American Dream a refusal to commit oneself to anything – an education, a career, a marriage? Or is he saying the American Dream is an illusion that we can pursue but never catch? I think Bellow was posing the questions without attempting to provide any answers, which works from a thematic perspective but left the conclusion of the plot so open that I felt like I was reading an unfinished work, like The Good Soldier Svejk or Dead Souls.
* I wanted to like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, since I think Lolita is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and while I didn’t enjoy Pale Fire I do recognize how clever it is and that I might not fully appreciate its humor. But Pnin, the story of a fish-out-of-water Russian professor at a fictional university in upstate New York, suffers from Pale Fire‘s problem even more deeply: The target of its parodic efforts is too obscure for the average reader to appreciate. Where Pale Fire satirized technical and literary analysis of poetry, Pnin takes aim at the ivory towers of academic life at private universities, which is probably hilarious if you’re a professor or a grad student but largely went right by me as someone who sleepwalked through college by doing the minimum amount of work required for most of my classes.
* Abbe Provost’s 1731 novel Manon Lescaut seemed to be stalking me over the last two months, so I had to read it – it appears on Daniel Burt’s revised version of the The Novel 100, then was the subject of allusions in at least two other books I read that time, including Augie March and I think Nicole Krauss’ History of Love as well. Manon Lescaut follows the Chevalier des Grieux as he ruins himself over his obsession with the title character, a young, beautiful, and entirely materialistic woman who throws the Chevalier overboard every time he runs out of money. The two engage in multiple schemes to defraud wealthier men who fall in love (or lust, really) with Manon at first sight, and eventually end up sent to the French colony at New Orleans, where the pattern repeats itself with a less fortunate conclusion. Its controversial status at the time would be lost on any reader today over the age of 12, but its depiction of sexual obsession mixed with several early examples of suspense writing (before either genre really existed in its own right) made it a quick and intense read. Plus now I get the references.
* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is another short novel of obsession, also appearing on the Novel 100, this one telling the tale of a man who is so in love with a woman who is betrothed to someone else that he eventually takes his own life. Told through the letters Werther writes to his friend, I found the deterioration of Werther’s mind as his depression deepens to be far more interesting than the pseudo-romantic aspect of a man so in love with another woman that he’d rather die than live without her. He just needed a good therapist. It was by far the shortest novel I had left on the Novel 100 and brought my total read on that list to 80, so it was worth the two hours or less I spent on it.
* Zadie Smith’s On Beauty reimagines E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (which I read and didn’t care for that much) in a serious comic novel around a conflict of race rather than class, set in a New England college town in the early 2000s. Smith also sends up the conflict between conservative and liberal academic ideologies (or theologies, more accurately) in one of the subplots that, much like that of Pnin, ended up missing the mark for me, although I could at least recognize glimpses of my alma mater in some of the satire. The novel’s greatest strength is the way Smith defines so many individual characters, especially those of the Belsey family, headed by a white father and an African-American mother and whose children are searching for racial, religious, and cultural identities while their parents try to recover from their father’s inability to keep it in his pants. I couldn’t help but compare On Beauty, which has some brilliant dialogue along with the deep characterizations and is often quite funny, to Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, which produced very mixed feelings in me when I first read it and didn’t fully appreciate (as I think I do now) how Smith was trying to stretch the boundaries of realistic fiction to tell a broad and expansive story. On Beauty, paying homage to a classic work of British literature, feels restrained by the confines of its inspiration when Smith’s imagination is a huge part of why her writing is so appealing, leaving it a good novel, a funny yet smart one that reads quickly, but a slightly unsatisfying one because I know she can do more than this.
* Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World tells the history of that somewhat mundane, unrespected fish, which had a substantial impact on the growth of civilization in Europe and in North America, and which was one of humanity’s first warnings (duly ignored) that we could exhaust a seemingly endless natural resource. Kurlansky’s book Salt turned a similar trick, taking a topic that seemed inherently uninteresting and finding interesting facts and anecdotes to allow him to make the story readable. Cod actually has a stronger narrative thread because Kurlansky can trace the fish’s rise in popularity and commercial value as well as its role in international relations, climaxing in the sudden collapse of cod stocks and the uncertain ending around the fish’s future as a species and a food source. We’re really good at overfishing, because technology has allowed us to catch more fish (as well as species we didn’t intend to catch) which has in turn made fish too cheap to consume. Kurlansky didn’t focus enough on this issue for my tastes, although Cod was published in 1997 when overfishing was seen as more of a fringe environmentalist concern, before celebrity chefs embraced sustainability and began preaching it to the masses.