Sons and Lovers.

I chatted on Thursday, and also posted an updated top 100 draft prospects ranking, with links to 40 scouting reports posted and another 20 either in the queue or en route to my editors.

D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers was far easier to read than his later work Women in Love, although little of any consequence happens to the morose protagonist, the original mama’s boy of western literature, the human fungus Paul Morel. The book appears at #9 on the Modern Library 100 and is on the (unranked) Bloomsbury 100; it made the honorable mention list of 100 in the original Novel 100 and moved up to #62 when Daniel Burt revised the list in 2010.

Paul Morel stands in for Lawrence in this semi-autobiographical work, mirroring Lawrence’s peculiarly close relationship with his own mother and its effect on his attempted affairs with two women. The fictional Morel is the third child and second son of a working-class couple whose marriage has deteriorated through the father’s drinking and the mother’s domineering personality, a conflict that causes Paul and his older brother William to lose respect for their father entirely as they age. Paul forges an unusual bond with his mother that hinders him in two relationships in his late teens and early twenties, one with the innocent, smothering Miriam, the other with the more independent yet conflicted Clara.

Paul himself is a drip – enough that the literary critic Harold Bloom referred to this novel as “a portrait of the artist as a young prig.” Paul is obsessed with some kind of inner spiritual satisfaction independent of religion that he would find in love, but only finds it, for reasons never entirely clear to me, in his relationship with his mother – who does not satisfy his intellectual or artistic pretensions, only reveling in his modest successes, while discouraging his relationship with the sweet but nonintellectual Miriam, viewing her as a rival for her son’s affections. That affair sours when Paul discovers the more wordly Clara, separated from her husband under circumstances that Lawrence deliberately obscures from the reader until later, and with whom Paul has an affair that revolves more around sex than love (cast as “passion” within the book), an affair that withers later when Paul’s mother begins to die of cancer and when Paul meets Clara’s husband, a dim-witted brute severely damaged by his wife’s abandonment.

Even though Lawrence modeled Paul after himself, the emotional center of the novel isn’t Paul but Paul’s mother, who married beneath herself, grew miserable with her choices, and chose to focus her energies on her sons, first William and then Paul, living vicariously through them and manipulating them emotionally to try to influence their choices. She fails with William, and when that bond is beyond recovery, she turns to Paul, molding him as she sees fit, directing him in the workplace and in romance to the point where he cannot form a sound adult relationship with another woman while she still lives. There is no hint of untoward behavior, but the “Lovers” of the book’s title are clearly William and Paul, the surrogate loves of their mother’s otherwise unhappy life.

The saving grace of Sons and Lovers is the sheer intensity of Lawrence’s descriptions of emotions, both within Paul’s head and through his dialogue with his mother, Miriam, and Clara. It’s difficult to make passages that revolve around thought and feeling into compelling reading, yet Lawrence’s prose here never flagged – his familiarity with poetry is evident, as is his deep connection to the material. Paul’s a nebbish, more antihero than here – after he breaks with Miriam, you’re like, dude, cut the damn cord already – but Lawrence can invest the reader in Paul’s story despite that emotional immaturity.

Next up: I just finished Dan Koeppel’s superb non-fiction book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.

Saturday five, #2.

Five books, five links to my own stuff, and five links to others’ articles.

I’ve read eight books since my last post on any of them, so I’m going to take a shortcut and catch up by highlighting the five most interesting. Now that spring training is ending, I hope to get back to regular dishblogging soon.

* Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea is the one non-fiction book in this bunch, a history-of-math tome that incorporates a fair amount of philosophy, physics, and religion all in a book that’s under 200 pages and incredibly readable for anyone who’s at least taken high school math. The subject is the number zero, long scorned by philosophers, theologians, and even some mathematicians who resisted the idea of nothing or the void, yet which turned out to be critical in a long list of major scientific advances, including calculus and quantum mechanics. I generally prefer narrative non-fiction, but Zero moves as easily as a math-oriented book can get without that central thread.

* Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town is one of three major Hammett short-story collections in print (along with The Continental Op and the uneven The Big Knockover), and my favorite for its range of subjects and characters without feeling as pulpy as some of his most commercial stories. The twenty stories are all detective stories of one sort or another starring several different Hammett detectives, including early iterations of Sam Spade and the character who eventually became the Thin Man, as well as a western crime story that might be my favorite short piece by Hammett, “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams.”

* Readers have recommended Tim O’Brien’s short story cycle The Things They Carried for several years, usually any time I mention reading another book that deals with the Vietnam War and/or its aftermath. The book, a set of interconnected stories that feels like an novel despite the lack of a central plot, is based heavily on O’Brien’s own experiences in that conflict, especially around death – of platoon mates, of Viet Cong soldiers, of Vietnamese civilians, and of a childhood crush of O’Brien’s who died at age 9 of a brain tumor. The writing is remarkable, more than the stories themselves, which seemed to cover familiar ground in the genre, as well as O’Brien’s ability to weave all of these disconnected stories into one tapestry around that central theme of death and the pointlessness of war. The final story, where he ties much of it together by revisiting one of the first deaths he discussed in the book, is incredibly affecting on two levels as a result of everything that’s come before.

* I’m a big Haruki Murakami fan – and no, I haven’t read 1Q84 yet and won’t until it’s in paperback – but Dance, Dance, Dance was mostly a disappointment despite some superficial entertainment value, enough to at least make it a quick read if not an especially deep one. A sequel of sorts to A Wild Sheep Chase, it attempts to be more expansive than that earlier novel but still feels like unformed Murakami, another look at him as he built up to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a top-ten novel for me that hit on every level. Dance is just too introspective, without enough of Murakami’s sort of magical realism (and little foundation for what magical realism it does contain) and no connection between the reader and the main character.

* I loved Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a funny, biting satire on upper-class life in the United States just after World War I, so I looked forward to House of Mirth, present on the Modern Library and Bloomsbury 100 lists, expecting more of that sharp wit but receiving, instead, a dry, depressing look at the limitations of life for women in those same social circles prior to the war. It’s a tragedy with an ironic title that follows Lily Bart through her fall from social grace, thanks mostly to the spiteful actions of other women in their closed New York society; it’s a protest novel, and one of the earliest feminist novels I’ve read (preceded, and perhaps inspired, by Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), but I found myself feeling more pity than empathy for Lily as a victim of circumstances, not of her own missteps.

Next up: I’m reading Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman (filmed as The American) and listening to Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. The Booth book is on sale through that link for $5.60.

Five things I wrote or said this week:

On Jeff Samardzija’s revival.

This week’s chat.

One batch of spring training minor league notes, including the Angels, A’s, Rangers, and Royals.

Tuesday’s “top 10 players for 2017” column, which I emphasized was just for fun and still got people far too riled up. There’s no rational way to predict who the top ten players will be in five years and I won’t pretend I got them right. But it was fun to do.

I interviewed Top Chef winner and sports nut Richard Blais on the Tuesday Baseball Today podcast, in which he talked about what it was like to “choke” (his word) in the finals on his first season and then face the same situation in his second go-round. We also talked about why I should break my ten-year boycott of hot dogs.

And the links…

* The best patent rejection ever, featuring Borat’s, er, swimsuit.

* A spotlight on Massachusetts’ outdated liquor laws. For a state that likes to pretend it’s all progressive, Massachusetts is about thirty years behind the times when it comes to alcohol, to say nothing of how the state’s wholesalers control the trade as tightly as the state liquor board does in Pennsylvania. The bill this editorial discusses would be a small start in breaking apart their oligopoly, but perhaps enough to start to crumble that wall.

* I admit it, I’m linking to Bleacher Report, but Dan Levy’s commentary on how Twitter has affected what a “scoop” means, especially to those of us in the business, is a must read. And there’s no slidshow involved.

* The Glendale mayor who drove the city into a nine-figure debt hole by spending government money to build facilities for private businesses – including the soon-to-be-ex-Phoenix Coyotes – won’t run for a sixth term, yet she’s receiving more accolades than criticism on the way out. Put it this way: Given its schools, safety, and public finances, we never considered Glendale for a second when looking to move out here.

* The “pink slime” controversy has led the manufacturer to suspend production at three of its four plants. That makes for a good headline, but are job losses really relevant to what should be a discussion of whether this is something people, especially schoolchildren, should be consuming? And now the controversy is moving on to carmine dye, derived from an acid extracted from cochineal beetles and used in Starbucks frappuccinos. If nothing else, I applaud the new emphasis on knowing exactly what we’re eating.

Of Human Bondage.

Another pretty good deal on Amazon – the complete BBC series Planet Earth: The Complete BBC Series is just $20 on DVD. I’m picking it up as a gift for someone who will probably see this so I’m going to stop talking about it now.

I also answered three questions for Keep Food Legal, the only organization dedicated to fighting for “culinary freedom” in the U.S. Hands off my unpasteurized cheese.

No Klawchat this week.

W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, #66 on the Modern Library 100, is a dense, autobiographical, highly philosophical novel that takes its protagonist, Philip Carey, from the moment he becomes an orphan at age nine through the end of his twenties, during which he tries several careers, loses his faith, and embarks on several ill-fated affairs, including one disastrous obsession that nearly ruins his life. It’s a book I’m glad I read, but will certainly never read again because the slightly awkward prose and the long internal monologues made it an arduous read.

The book opens with the death of Philip’s mother and his removal to the country home of his uncle, a vicar, and submissive aunt, who comes to love him as the son she never had but lacks any authority in her own home. Philip chafes under the restrictions of this life, finding solace by reading the books his uncle owns for show, but finds his life taking a turn for the worse when he’s shipped off to boarding school where his club foot makes him an object for derision and social isolation. After discovering he no longer believes in God (if he ever truly did), he begins a series of misadventures at university and in various careers, including a stint in accounting and an attempt to be a not-starving artist in Paris, before settling into medical school in London. At the same time, he begins an on-again, off-again affair with the unattractive, selfish, manipulative Mildred, who seems to view Philip as a personal ATM, only showing him attention or affection when she needs something from him, popping up in his life when he least needs her all-consuming distractions.

The novel relies heavily on events from Maugham’s own life. Like Philip, Maugham was orphaned before he turned ten, and was raised by a strict, religious uncle and an ineffectual aunt who expected him to take orders after school. He also drifted through several potential careers before studying medicine for five years, during which time he continued to observe people and their emotions and worked on his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, published when he was 23. (By comparison, Philip doesn’t become a writer in Of Human Bondage, and doesn’t complete his medical training until he’s nearly 30.)

Maugham’s prose is choppy and his inconsistent use of cockney spellings, even outside of the dialogue, is a distraction, but he makes up for these deficiencies with strong use of symbolism throughout the novel. Philip’s club foot stands in for Maugham’s own personal shame (at least earlier in his life) at his homosexuality, a theme that pervades the entire novel even though Philip never develops anything stronger than a friendship with any other male character. Philip’s sense that his disability causes his ostracism, leads others to mock or simply underestimate him, and prevents him from living a full life seems to stand in well for the obstacles before a gay man in England in the late 1800s/early 1900s, when any sexual act between two males was illegal and punishable by a prison term. Maugham was in medical school when Oscar Wilde was tried for “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years in prison, which convinced Maugham to keep his own sexuality (he was either gay or bisexual) a secret, both in his private life and in his early writings. Rather than make his protagonist gay, Maugham gave him a physical disability that could cause similar social disadvantages by making him sufficiently different from the rest of the guys.

The “bondage” of the book’s title, taken from a phrase in Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics (which, along with Renan’s Vie de Jesus, was a major influence on the personal philosophy of the young Maugham), refers to the multiple societal constraints that appear to limit our ability to find happiness in a life that is, according to Philip, devoid of inherent meaning. The strict religion of the Victorian era and the accompanying moral codes, the expectations a man’s breeding and/or education placed on his career, all of which also limited whom one might choose to love (if one even has such a choice), are bonds Philip must consciously break to find any sort of personal happiness in a universe that will not deliver happiness to him in this life or anything after it. The introductory essay in the edition I read says that many readers found the book’s positive ending jarring or unrealistic, but in my reading, it made perfect sense: Philip casts off all of his bonds and chooses a life he believes will make him happy with a woman well-suited to his temperament, for whom he feels genuine affection (if not actual love). I read this as Maugham’s own private yearning for a world in which he, too, could cast off the societal bonds, and live openly as a gay man. (Maugham had at least two longstanding, not-exactly-secret relationships with men, but passed away two years before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 began the process of decriminalizing “homosexual acts” between consenting adults.)

Philip’s obsession with Mildred provides the narrative greed for most of the middle third of the novel, and I appear to be in good company in finding it inexplicable. She is presented without any redeeming qualities; she is rude, dismissive, haughty, plain, unfeminine, manipulative, and an unloving mother to the child she bore to another man she was sleeping with even as she is coaxing Philip out of some of his money. Philip’s obsession is presented in vivid, realistic terms, but there’s no logic to it at all beyond the possible desire he feels for a woman who won’t have him. He throws another relationship overboard, jeopardizes his career, and loses much of his savings for her, only to have her exact a rather severe punishment on him (albeit one that loosens yet another bond, that of a man to his property) in the end. She could have been just as awful a person, yet depicted as beautiful, and the obsession would have been more believable, yet Philip stands by her despite a lack of physical attraction and even as she openly mocks him by using his money to run off with another man. Is she merely a stand-in for the irrational, emotional impluses which bind us in our daily lives?

That same introductory essay, written by Professor Robert Calder of the University of Saskatchewan, who has written two biographies of Maugham, classifies Of Human Bondage with other autobiographical bildungsromans (coming-of-age novels) of its era, including A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which I found excruciating), Sons and Lovers, and The Way of All Flesh (both on my to-be-read shelf). It’s a highly introspective, emotional style of novel, with long digressions on the author’s own psychological and philosophical development, and attempts to explain how external forces (people and events) shaped that development. As someone who reads for plot over all other elements, it’s never going to be my favorite subgenre, and Of Human Bondage didn’t offer me great prose or highly compelling characters to balance out that weakness.

Odd fact: One of Maugham’s great-grandsons, Derek Pavancini, is a blind, autistic savant pianist.

Next up: James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss.

A High Wind in Jamaica and After Dark.

Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, ranked 71st on the Modern Library’s list of the top 100 English-language novels of the 20th century, is an anti-adventure novel that deglamorizes the traditional pirate story and instead uses pirates as a vehicle for a serious novel about innocence and its loss.

The novel tells the story of the Bas-Thornton children, five preteens who live on a plantation with their parents in Jamaica, but who are sent back to England after a terrible hurricane convinces their parents that life on the island is unsafe. Traveling with two children from a neighboring plantation, they have barely embarked when their ship is set upon by pirates, led by the Danish sailor Captain Jonsen, who takes the children as well as all of the cargo. The cowardly captain of their original ship believes them killed and reports as such to their parents, who don’t learn the truth until the end of the book. Captain Jonsen tries to leave the children with a matriarch in a pirates’ haven on the island, but is rebuffed after an accident befalls one of the five, leading to several months at sea during which tensions rise between crew and captives and their “adventures” prove more harrowing than thrilling.

Unlike typical novels set on the high seas, A High Wind in Jamaica veers straight for the more serious themes, including rape and murder, that would be required in any realistic depiction of piracy. Forcing children who do not as yet understand mortality, and all of whom but one remain unaware of sexuality, into a situation where they will be confronted by the harsh realities of adult life allows Hughes to explore innocence and the cognitive dissonance children utilize to deal with events they can’t fully understand.

Hughes’ skill in dealing with this extends to his ability to bounce between the children when providing perspectives within the book, and aside from the one real murder of the novel, often describing occurrences in obscuring language to mirror the fog a seven-year-old might perceive when older children are discussing sex. The way Hughes jumps from child to child also seemed to me to mirror the rocking of a boat sailing somewhat aimlessly on the open seas, as Captain Jonsen wishes to rid himself of his human cargo (without harming them) but fears that he will be charged with kidnapping or worse if he tries to hand them over to another ship.

The book reads quickly as Hughes’ prose is straightforward, but lacked much narrative greed – there seemed little chance that Hughes would simply wipe out all of the children to end the book, so I read it assuming full well that there would be a reunion before the novel’s conclusion. Those final few short sections are critical, particularly to the resolution of Emily’s story, as she ends up the most central of the child characters, but I found my involvement within the plot to be rather limited.

I haven’t even acquired Haruki Murakami’s new book, the mammoth 1Q84, and probably won’t until it ends up in paperback next year. (When I’m reading a book, I tend to carry it all over the place, including on planes, and a three-pound book just isn’t my cup of tea.) I am still working my way through his back catalog, and read the somewhat inconsequential After Dark earlier this month. Telling the story of a few lost souls on one peculiar night in Tokyo, Murakami slips in a little magical realism, a few touches of his usual violence (off screen, for a change), and a lot of the vaguely philosophical dialogue that populates most of his novels.

The two main characters, Mari and Takahashi, meet by chance, and then are thrown together again by necessity, launching them on an all-night conversation that links their story to the parallel tale of Mari’s sister, who has been asleep – but not comatose – for what seems to be months, the result of a depression that is never explained but that has taken a toll on Mari as well. The parallel narrative trick worked more effectively for Murakami in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, another book of his I’d rate below his average (which is still above most contemporary writers’ averages). In After Dark, all edges are blurred, perhaps a nod to the darkness and the way our vision is distorted by artificial light, but that same blurriness keeps his characters at arm’s length, and the novel is so brief that we never learn enough about any of the central characters to understand what’s driving them to or away from anything.

Next up: I just finished W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage – I can think of at least one thing wrong with that title – and have moved on to James Crumley’s hard-boiled detective novel The Last Good Kiss.

The Loved One, Winesburg, Ohio, and The Wapshot Chronicle.

Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One was at least the most fun to read of the three books, even if it doesn’t quite have the others’ literary standing. This was Waugh’s first novel published after what is today considered his masterwork, Brideshead Revisited, but is more of a return to the satirical comic novels that fill most of his bibliography.

In The Loved One, Dennis Barlow, a young English “poet” who seems incapable of writing two lines of quality verse is working at a pet crematorium in Los Angeles when his benefactor, the screenwriter Sir Francis Hinley, is sacked by the studio that employs him and promptly hangs himself. While arranging for Sir Francis’ interment, Dennis meets Aimée Thanatogenos, the cosmetologist who applies makeup to the corpses before their viewings. He pursues her as she is also pursued by Mr. Joyboy, the prissy embalmer who still lives with his imperious (and somewhat batty) old mother.

The Loved One clocks in at a scant 164 pages, but within that length Waugh packs in enough mockery for a book of twice its length. Waugh had spent time in Southern California working on the adaptation of Brideshead and the bulk of the satire in the earlier part of this book is aimed at Hollywood, both its industry and the area’s way of life. Once Hinley is summarily dispatched, which leads to a hilariously morbid conversation on the proper procedure for fixing up and displaying the corpse of such a suicide, Waugh turns his firepower toward the American death industry, with a tour of the “Whispering Glades” cemetery that is so fatuous it would seem absurd if it didn’t tie so closely to reality.

If there’s a flaw in The Loved One it’s a question of what Dennis sees in Aimée, who is rather a dim bulb and doesn’t bring anything to the table other than looks. En route to blasting the American film and mortuary industries and the superficiality he saw in American culture at the time, he stinted a little on character development, and when one-third of the love triangle dies, there’s no emotion involved – although, of course, it does generate a few more twisted laughs. It’s not as funny as Scoop or Decline and Fall, but if you enjoy a vicious satire it’s still one of the funnier books I’ve read this year.

Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio appears incongruously at #24 on the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, since it’s not actually a novel but a short story cycle revolving around the residents of the rural town of the book’s title. (That’s not the list’s only error; the book at #8, Darkness at Noon, was originally published in German. And it doesn’t include Beloved. But I digress.) Anderson’s work was a landmark in American realism with frank treatment of sex, religion, drink, and depression, but like many books that break barriers it reads as dated today because the stories underneath this realistic treatment are so often thin.

Anderson begins the book by explaining that each story that follows is about a character he calls a “grotesque,” someone feeling the loneliness and isolation of life in a small town, each for his own unusual reasons. These are merely slices of life, a glimpse at a character and a back story, but often very little in the present; the only story that moves beyond that is the four-part mini-cycle called “Godliness” that traces one family through several generations and the disappointment of the patriarch in the lack of a male heir to his nonexistent throne. One character, the young reporter George Willard, who gravitates toward an escape to wider horizons as the book goes on, perhaps because he alone sees the whole town for its limits and the unavoidable ennui of a place with such narrow horizons. He never gives the reader insight into the town’s social structure, and while the town itself is the one aspect tying all the stories together, even its physical layout is only evident from the map provided before the first page. I didn’t love Winesburg, Ohio, and I didn’t hate it, but I think I’ll have a hard time remembering it because of how little actually occurs, and how the loneliness of the characters never fully came through for me.

John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle (#63 on that Modern Library list) is a tragicomic novel about the family of that name struggling with life in their Massachusetts fishing village as their circumstances change, the world changes, and their two sons strike off to make their way outside of the confines of the small town where they grew up. The book’s most central character is Leander, the family’s father, who decides at this late stage of his life to try his hand at writing and begins keeping a journal filled with sentence fragments and a mildly comic mix of the mundane and the sad, particularly where his own emasculation (a comment on the rise of feminism in our society?) becomes evident, foreshadowing the book’s final passages.

One chapter stood out for the wrong reasons, in which one of the Wapshot sons, Coverly, struggles with feelings of bisexuality. Itt felt completely tacked on – the subject is never broached before or after that one chapter, and it begins with a warning that readers might wish to skip to the next one. It felt to me like some editor told Cheever he couldn’t include gay content unless it was cordoned off with flares and pylons for the conservative reader of the 1960s, and that organization makes the subject easy to dismiss. He was much more successful in dealing with the same themes in Falconer.

Waugh and Cheever both mined humor from despair in their books, but where Waugh is biting and acerbic, Cheever is simply sad, watching the decline of Leander as he sees his own potency dissolved by his independent wife and his wealthy and slightly deranged sister while his sons are both held back by the crazy women they chase and marry. Wapshot is undeniably funny and poignant if you can work through the slow passages, but he clearly had better work ahead of him after this debut novel.

The Ginger Man.

J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man was originally published by a small publisher of pornographic novels, Olympia Press, which shortly thereafter published the decidedly literary work Lolita. But Donleavy and Olympia ended up in court twenty years later, and the lawsuit and Olympia’s subsequent bankruptcy filingended with Donleavy owning the company. The book, which ranked #99 on the Modern Library 100, is a bawdy, undisciplined novel about an American wastrel trying desperately to avoid growing up while pretending to study at Dublin’s Trinity college. Its subject matter and meandering narrative form a cross between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Unfortunately, I didn’t really care for either of those books, and you’ll be shocked to hear I also didn’t care for The Ginger Man.

The titular antihero of Donleavy’s book is Sebastian Dangerfield, who begins the novel as a married man with a young baby girl, a drinking problem, an income problem (he has none), a responsibility problem, and a maturity problem. He wants to drink and chase women; his wife wants him to be a provider and a loving husband. He has no interest in studying – I’m not actually sure if the subject of his studies is even mentioned in the book – and even less in anything resembling work. He takes “loans” from friends, steals his landlords’ things and pawns them, and concocts various schemes to defraud his various creditors.

The Ginger Man is intended to be a comic novel, a modern picaresque set around a rascal whose exploits are fodder for laughs but also for our inner youths to admire. But Sebastian is no rascal – he’s an ass. He hits his wife, repeatedly, and abuses her verbally as well. He tries to suffocate his child when she makes too much noise. He destroys property – never his own, since he has none – and even tries to take revenge on his wife by hammering nails into the pipe leading out of their second-floor toilet. Debauchery can be funny, but this isn’t standard-issue drinking and whoring – this is sociopathy, a man who feels absolutely no guilt or remorse when he causes physical, emotional, or financial harm to anyone else. Once Sebastian tried to kill his daughter, there was no redemption for him or for the book in my eyes. Perhaps domestic abuse was funny in the 1960s. It’s not funny today.

The signature “humor” scene is lowbrow, but also rather unfunny, as Sebastian gets on the subway and, while mentally seething at an old man he thinks has lecherous intentions toward the girl sitting next to him, is himself taking the whole “rock out with your cock out” thing a little too literally. I suppose going out in public with the mouse of the house could be funny in some contexts, but this scene plays more along the lines of the prepubescent child giggling nervously over public nudity.

The book is, however, widely praised by critics and its placement on the Modern Library list is far from an unusual opinion, with the New York Times and the New Yorker running glowing reviews (the latter by Dorothy Parker) when it was first published here. Its prose is very much of the Joyce school of the internal monologue, with the narration shifting constantly between third- and first-person, usually with no demarcation between the two – a distracting technique, and one that gets no points from me for cleverness because it was used so many times before. The subject matter was groundbreaking at the time, with the book originally banned for obscenity (almost a badge of honor for postmodern novels of the early to mid-twentieth century), but today is ho-hum, and its sexual content is simply graphic but not erotic; it is what Mrs. Shinn would rightfully call “a smutty book.” And that would be fine, if it was funny, or if the prose was brilliant, or if the lead character was a charming lothario rather than a wife-beating, child-snuffing lunatic.

Next up: I just finished John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle. That was better.

An American Tragedy.

Been busy on the draft blog, with updates on Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Kyle Gaedele.

Clyde Griffiths is dead, and it’s about freaking time already. It took Theodore Dreiser over eight hundred pages to tell a story that could have been told in under half that. An American Tragedy is an acknowledged classic, present on four of the top 100 lists I use as reading guides*, but I found it dull, thin, internally implausible (even though it’s based heavily on a true story), and populated by characters who were lucky to receive a second dimension.

*It’s #16 on the Modern Library 100, #88 on the Radcliffe 100, and on the unranked TIME 100, all of which are limited to English-language novels of the 20th century. It’s also #46 on The Novel 100, which covers all novels and is now back in print.

The story, in brief: Clyde Griffiths is raised in poverty by a pair of non-denominational missionary parents, and rejects their lifestyle and religion to strike out on his own. At every turn, his attempts to move himself forward socially and economically are stymied by his attraction to and obsession with the fairer sex. Eventually, he’s taken in by his wealthy uncle and given work in that man’s collar factory, where he meets and seduces a simple country girl, Roberta Allen. When Clyde finds that society girl Sondra Finchley is interested in him, he ditches Roberta to pursue Sondra, only to find out that Roberta is pregnant with his child and (after failed attempts to abort the baby) insists that he marry her. So he hatches a plan to kill Roberta, and Roberta ends up dead even though Clyde may have had a change of heart at the last second. He’s quickly caught, tried at great literary length, and executed. Fin.

It could easily have been a story of great drama, but it’s not. For one thing, most readers of the book know the ending, which was true when it came out because the case on which Dreiser based the novel was a national sensation, the O.J. Simpson trial of its day (except that the defendant was found guilty and executed).

It could also have been a brilliant character study, but poor Clyde is as narrow as Doug Fieger’s tie and has so little nderstanding of his own actions that it’s hard for me to make any convincing case as to his motives. The closest I could come is to label him a narcissist, since he tends to think of everything bad as happening “to him,” notably Roberta’s pregnancy which was most certainly not happening to Clyde in any physical sense.

It doesn’t even work as a polemic. At first it looks like an indictment of religion, or of Puritanism, but that falls by the wayside when Clyde leaves his parents. It could be a criticism of misspent youth, of alcohol, or of venal behavior by “loose” women, but none of those themes sticks around long either. The longest single theme is that of the caste system found in the upstate New York town where Clyde’s uncle and family live, a system that finds Clyde caught in between as the part-owner of a surname associated with success, status, and wealth but himself poor, uneducated, and socially awkward. But then Clyde kills Roberta, gets arrested, and the rich/poor issue is mostly forgotten.

If there’s anything worth pondering in An American Tragedy, it’s whether Clyde was legally guilty of the murder. Clyde sets up the entire crime, then at the last second has some sort of mental apoplexy and doesn’t quite go through with it … but Roberta falls out of the boat, Clyde probably knocks her in the head, and he definitely doesn’t bother to save her as she drowns. Is it murder if he meant it but he didn’t mean it but he meant it anyway? I sure as hell thought so, which made the trial – on which Dreiser spends the better part of 300 pages – as dull as pitcher fielding practice.

And as for the prose, well, Dryser might have been a more appropriate moniker, for the author was no magician with our language, a view to which my friends at TIME also subscribe. The prose wasn’t leaden; it was eka-leaden. To wit:

But in the interim, in connection with his relations with Roberta no least reference to Sondra, although, even when near her in the factory or her room, he could not keep his thoughts from wandering away to where Sondra in her imaginary high social world might be. The while Roberta, at moments only sensing a drift and remoteness in his thought and attitude which had nothing to do with her, was wondering what it was that of late was beginning to occupy him so completely. And he, in his turn, when she was not looking was thinking – supposing? – supposing – (since she had troubled to recall herself to him), that he could interest a girl like Sondra in him?

The whole book is like this, all 353,014 words of it. Another typical Dreiser move is the extended double negative:

Nevertheless she was not at all convinced that a girl of Roberta’s looks and practicality would not be able to negotiate an association of the sort without harm to herself.

You parse that sucker, and get back to me in a week when you’re done.

So … why did I stick it out? For one thing, because it’s on four of those book lists, and while I may not reach 100 on any of them, it pushed me one closer. But it also stood as the last unread novel from my years in school: It was originally assigned to me in my senior year of high school, in the fall of 1989. I got to page 25, hated it, bought the Cliffs Notes, and wrote the paper off that. That’s the same class for which I didn’t read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a book I went back and read in 2005 and loved. I simply can’t say the same for this paperweight.

Next up: Dr. Michael Guillen’s Five Equations That Changed the World: The Power and Poetry of Mathematics.

The U.S.A. Trilogy.

My Cliff Lee analysis from last night is up for Insiders, as is a piece from earlier on Monday on Scott Downs, Brendan Ryan, and Ryan Theriot, featuring a TOOTBLAN reference.

John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy – The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money – is considered a landmark in American fiction, ranking 68th on the Novel 100, 23rd on the Modern Library 100, and 55th on the Brit-lit-skewed Guardian 100. Leading literary lights from Jean-Paul Sartre to Norman Mailer have praised Dos Passos’ writing in U.S.A. and the influence the work had in bringing modernism to the American novel. Taken in sum, this series of interconnected stories presents a panoramic view of the United States from the start of the Great War to the end of the Roaring 20s, where the main character is the scene and setting rather than any individual in the book. It’s not an easy read – more on that in a moment – but it is an important read if you read as a student rather than just for pleasure. (Not that there’s anything wrong with reading just for pleasure, of course.)

(Aside: The Novel 100 is back in print after several years out of it. The book, by literature professor Daniel Burt, ranks the 100 greatest novels ever written with an essay on each, and features a bonus, unranked list of the “second 100” after those. It’s been a great reading list for me, and I enjoy Burt’s analyses and comments on each book’s influence, even if I don’t always agree with his selections.)

Each book in the trilogy includes lengthy chapters following a dozen or so characters whose lives intertwine and whose paths cross with major historical figures, such as the young idealist who ends up working publicity on the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti. These chapters, heavy on descriptive prose, are bookended by two types of mini-chapters, the Newsreel and “The Camera Eye.” The former is a list of clipped fragments from newspaper and magazine articles of the time, anchoring you to a specific year or month while also setting up some of the emotional framework for the chapter to follow; the latter is a somewhat indecipherable stream-of-consciousness, worm’s-eye view of society that I found myself skimming because it gave me bad memories of struggling through Ulysses last winter. Dos Passos also inserts short, stylized biographies of important Americans of the time period, from Henry Ford to Woodrow Wilson to Frederick Taylor to now-forgotten names like dancer Isadora Duncan and labor activist Joe Hill, written with an opinionated voice that also seeks to inform.

Dos Passos also based large chunks of the books on his own experiences in World War I as part of the volunteer ambulance corps in Paris – a role that seems to have required a lot more drinking and carousing than actual ambulance-driving, but one that also seems to have fueled the book’s derogatory portraits of upper-class American twits in Europe, chasing money or skirts or good times while there was a war going on around them.

What I didn’t like about U.S.A. was the lack of a central story, or even set of stories. The existential nature of the trilogy means characters wink in and out of the book and Dos Passos gives a lot of time to mundane matters without investing the reader at all in anyone’s fate or happiness – because, I presume, that wasn’t his point. Dos Passos set out to provide a slice of life, and I’m not sure any American writer has done it better – but it makes for a more academic read than a leisurely one, a trilogy you might pick up to help you better follow the transition in American literature from the 1920s to the 1940s, but not something you’re going to grab to get you through your next long plane ride.

My other regret about U.S.A. is that Dos Passos didn’t use more dialogue, because he was pretty sharp with it and could have given more depth to his characters just by having them speak more often, such as in this banter from 1919 regarding the League of Nations:

“It’s not the name you give things, it’s who’s getting theirs underneath that counts,” said Robbins.
“That’s a very cynical remark,” said the California woman. “This isn’t any time to be cynical.”
“This is a time,” said Robbins, “when if we weren’t cynical we’d shoot ourselves.”

Baseball does come up a few times in the book, as one character is a serious fan (right around the time of the Black Sox scandal, after which baseball earns scant mention – you’d think Babe Ruth would show up in some Newsreels, right?) while the section in The Big Money on Frederick Taylor claims that

At Exeter he was head of his class and captain of the ballteam, the first man to pitch overhand. (When umpires complained that overhand pitching wasn’t in the rules of the game, he answered that it got results.)

And if you’re into food, U.S.A. introduced me to “smearcase,” which can refer to a sort of farmer’s or cottage cheese among the Pennsylvania Dutch, but which in the Baltimore area refers to something more akin to cheesecake. (The name comes from the German Schmierkäse, meaning smear-cheese.)

Next up: I’ve finished Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister and am most of the way through Dawn Powell’s Turn, Magic Wheel. Both authors are among my favorite American writers, Chandler for his phenomenal prose, Powell for her sardonic wit.

Midnight’s Children.

Futures Game recap is up, as well as a video of me & Jason Grey talking Futures Game.

In autobiography, as in all literature, what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe.

My only knowledge of Salman Rushdie prior to beginning his much-lauded novel Midnight’s Children was that he was the subject of a fatwa for The Satanic Verses and that somehow he’d managed to bag, even temporarily, Padma Lakshmi. His public image and the controversy over the latter novel gave me the impression that he was a dour, serious writer, and I was only reading this work because it appears on the TIME, Modern Library, and Radcliffe top 100s through which I’m gradually working my way. (It also won the Man Booker Prize in 1981, and in 1993 won the Booker of Bookers, given to the best winner from the first 25 years of the award.)

As it turns out – unsurprisingly to me, and probably to you as well – I’d sold Rushdie short. Midnight’s Children is inventive, sprawling, witty, satirical, acerbic, gross, and, in many ways, important. I wouldn’t say I loved the novel, for a few reasons I’ll get into, but I don’t think I have to love reading a book to recognize it as great literature. It is, in many ways, the Indian One Hundred Years of Solitude, not quite as compact or as immersing, but with the same combination of wide and narrow scopes while using magical realism to tell its story.

The narrator of Midnight’s Children is Saleem, born at the stroke of midnight at the precise moment that India earned her independence from Great Britain, a date that has symbolic significance as well as plot significance within the novel. The symbolic significance is obvious, as Saleem’s story parallels and intertwines with the history of India, not just as a country but as a people struggling to figure out the whole independence thing, while the plot significance derives from the fact that each of the 1,001 children born in India within the hour after independence develops some particular magical skill or power, with Saleem eventually – in rather crude fashion – discovering that he has the ability to read or even enter other peoples’ minds.

The story of the novel spans three generations, going back to his grandfather and his peculiar courtship of his wife – originally his patient, as he was the town’s one doctor, sent to Germany for his education – through his own parents’ unusual union, with each marriage, courtship, or broken heart sowing the seeds of future calamities. As Saleem’s mother gives birth, a Christian nurse with anarchist leanings switches his tag with that of another baby born simultaneously, altering not just their fates but, in Saleem’s story, at least, that of India as a whole. Saleem leaves India for Pakistan and returns after two separate exiles, leads a mental conference of the thousand and one children of midnight, becomes an ascetic with a preternatural sense of smell, falls in love with an illusionist, becomes a father and a widower, and ends up with a strange wasting disease that leads him to write down the story of his life, one that cannot be untangled from the story of India from its independence through the novel’s present day. His dabblings with various forms of extremism all lead to disaster, not just for him but for anyone who comes near him – he is convinced that he is the cause of the misery – standing in for India’s own unfortunate swings toward communism or religious hatred.

Rushdie’s prose is at once maddening and magical, maddening because of stylistic quirks like strings of three adjectives without interruption of comma or conjunction, magical in passages like this one, where he introduces one aspect of the novel’s altered reality where the emotions of a cook enter her food and the bodies of those who consume it:

And, now restored to the status of daughter in her own home, Amina began to feel the emotions of other people’s food seeping into her – because Reverend Mother doled out the curries and meatballs of intransigence, dishes umbued with the personality of their creator; Amina ate the fish salans of stubbornness and the birianis of determination.

(The meatballs of intransigence. I worked for someone once who ate too many of those.)

I’m only superficially familiar with Indian history, although I hit Wikipedia many times to check and see if events described in the novel were taken from real life. (Unfortunately, most of them were.) But it’s clear that Rushdie intended to satirize many aspects of Indian culture, society, and especially its government; his comments on Indira Gandhi led the despot to sue him for libel when the book was published. Saleem and his family – included a number of cousins, uncles, and aunts who are various shades of wacko – seemed to me to stand in for various problems or crises of India as a whole, writ smaller and often with comic effects.

I could even see this book used in a class on comic novels – I took such a class in college, where I first encountered The Master and Margarita and If on a winter’s night a traveler – because of Rushdie’s use of farce and dry, sidelong wit, including this almost throwaway line where he pokes fun at Saleem’s innocence as the character walks through a dirty city street:

…and Japanese tourists who all (on this occasion) wore surgical face-masks out of politeness, so as not to infect us with their exhaled germs;

There were a few plot twists that didn’t sit right with me, generally characters making decisions that made little or no sense to me. There’s also a passage where a magician who specializes in making things or people disappear is presumed killed, but it’s not clear why she wouldn’t have used her power to save herself; I imagine it was necessary to have her killed or removed from the story, but the manner in which Rushdie did so felt incomplete, and I was half-expecting her to resurface.

Finally, I found the meandering story of the plot, especially its jumps back and forth in time, to be very distracting, since the transitions often weren’t clear and much of the present-day content was completely ancillary to the main storyline. I thought Rushdie may have even acknowledged the nonlinear, tangential nature of the book through the voice of his main character:

This is not what I had planned; but perhaps the story you finish is never the one you begin.

But I may be erring by putting words in the author’s mouth when they only emanated from that of one of his creations. It was a tough read – not Tolstoy tough, but maybe Faulkner tough – but the creativity, the humor, and the borderline insanity of the book was remarkable, and as a window into a country and culture with which I wasn’t that familiar, it was an educational read as well.

It’s worth a mention that the witch with whom Saleem falls in love is named Parvati, while his second wife, who appears as audience and muse when he steps back from writing/telling his life story, is named Padma. So perhaps J.K. Rowling, in addition to reading A Dance to the Music of Time and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, read Midnight’s Children and threw in a reference via the names of two of her characters.

Next up: Kazuo Ishiguro’s frustrating, dreamlike novel The Unconsoled.

More thoughts on Ulysses.

So I suppose a book as heavily analyzed as Ulysses is worth a second post. There were some interesting responses in the comment thread on the last post, and I wanted to respond to two of those here. First, from Jay:

Also, there’s a lot more good in Bloom than you give him credit for. He’s a very good father, and a better husband in most respects than the typical Dubliner like Simon Deadalus. He’s a progressive free-thinker (which often makes him seem out of step with the other characters). He’s also financially successful despite having changed jobs so many times. To be sure, he has his strange sexual interests, but these have a bearing on his past and only add to the very interesting Molly/Bloom puzzle. To characterize him as “pathetic, a deviant, simpering ne’er-do-well” is not fair. (You can also let this rant serve as evidence that the book can inspire some intense loyalty among some readers).

This seems to be a common view, that Bloom is a better character than I saw; Blamires called him Joyce’s “Everyman” and other critics just marvel at how well fleshed-out he is. Here’s what I saw, beyond his perverted sexual tastes. He’s not, in my view, a good husband; he’s a provider, yes, and that puts him above the median in Joyce’s Dublin, but he is emotionally tone-deaf and has allowed his marriage to atrophy after the death of their 11-day-old son. At a time when his wife needed him to step up, he appears to have done nothing, and while he’s not happy with his non-conjugal marriage and frequent cuckolding, he’s not doing jack about it, and if anything seems to be ignorant of the fact that things he does and says drive Molly further away from him. Perhaps the marriage is beyond repair, but given what I could glean from Molly’s soliloquy at the end of the book, I don’t think so. I also saw little evidence either way on the quality of his parenting or relationship with his daughter; he cares about her, which, again, may put him above the median for fathers in Joyce’s Dublin, but while that’s a necessary condition for good parenting, it’s not sufficient. And even his efforts to help Stephen Dedalus are rooted in self-interest, mostly the prospect of financial gain, not in genuine interest for the boy. His progressive, free-thinking philosophy has just shifted its locus from God to money.

Another reader pointed to this story on the first Chinese translation of Ulysses, from the Atlantic Monthly. Even if you haven’t read Joyce’s book, it’s a great article, and it gives you some flavor for the wordplay in the book, which leads me to this comment from one of the many of you referring to himself as “brian:”

if you go into ulysses (even moreso finnegan’s wake) expecting plot, narrative, story, then you’re missing a large part of what the novel is trying to do. it brings language….sound, rhythm, cadence to an equal field with what we expect from an a-b-c story. there are sections of the book where it is perfecly advisable (and enjoyable!) to remove your critical mind from understanding the characters and their relationships and the plot from its movement to simply ‘hear’ the words and their sounds in a new way.

I understand, and understood from early on in Ulysses, that the play is not the thing – the language is. That’s great. It’s not what I like to read. I love getting lost in a good story – it doesn’t have to be a happy one, or a funny one, or a fast-paced one, as long as it’s a compelling one that’s well-told, with characters I can understand and with whom I can empathize. It’s analogous to the handful of you who criticized my omission of any Radiohead tracks from my list of my favorite songs from the 2000s, but Radiohead’s electronic, sparse, 2000s sound, while critically acclaimed, is just not what I like. I like guitars. I like plots. Sue me.