Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Year of Magical Thinking

            I did not pick up The Year of Magical Thinking* to alleviate my own grief; I picked it up because I mistakenly thought it was one of Joan Didion’s novels, and she had been on my literary list for a while. Boy, was I in for a sad, sad treat. Didion is an award-winning writer-giant with experience in fiction, screenwriting, and political reporting. Her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, reveals her attempts to make sense of the death of her husband, John Dunne. Her grieving process is complicated by the fact that their only daughter, Quintana Roo (you read that correctly), faced grave, ongoing health issues requiring consistent hospitalization during the time of her husband’s death.

            John Dunne was also a writer as talented and acclaimed as his wife. This was a fabulous couple and they did fabulous things. As such, Didion name drops and I dig it. Her life was cool, sophisticated, and privileged. Was she supposed to pretend in her memoir that it wasn’t? Why wouldn’t I want to dip in that luxury pool for a bit? It has jets, bubbles, and floating gardenias!

            Because of their unique occupations, Didion and Dunne spent an unusual amount of time together and were extraordinarily dependent on one another. They spent their days writing in unison and always edited each other’s work. When describing their routine, Didion says they walked together in Central Park every morning. She explains, “We did not always walk together because we liked different routes but we would keep the other’s route in mind and intersect before we left the park” (Didion, 36). From my perspective, I think this description perfectly encapsulates their marriage, in which both members are independent yet fiercely intertwined. They were crazy close so you can imagine the devastating impact of his death.

            Well, you don’t have to imagine, because you can read her book. Didion’s words are not the pouring out of raw emotion that you might expect from a new widow. She is a writer who is in shock. Her world has just turned upside down and she is trying to figure out how to continue to live in it, which includes continuing to write. The memoir appears to be cathartic for her, as she brings to the surface the acute pain of his absence. She acknowledges that it is difficult for her to understand John’s death as something that happened to him as opposed to something that happened to her (Didion, 77). She relies on literature and psychological studies to confront her mourning as a “transitory manic-depressive state” (Didion, 34). Her efforts to rationally address his death can sometimes give off detached vibes, but who am I to judge this woman’s coping mechanisms?

            I can only judge her writing, and I’m into it. Her words offer uncomfortable yet beautiful insight on the human condition. She notes toward the end of the memoir, “We are imperfect mortal beings…so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all” (Didion, 198). I don’t know what “typical” novelist or essayist Joan Didion is like, but I’m intrigued to find out after this little taste. The Year of Magical Thinking receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Random House, 2005. Print.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Tortilla Flat

            Steinbeck is an incredible storyteller. He’s always straight with you, he never pussyfoots around, and he taps into some complicated emotions that were applicable at the time of his writing (early 1930s-1960s) as well as today. Tortilla Flat*--one of his earliest novels—is set in Monterey, California. Unlike the flashy Monterey we see in Big Little Lies, the characters of Tortilla Flat often resort to theft as a result of their poverty. Like Big Little Lies, the characters of Tortilla Flat love a fat glass of wine.

            The crew in this novel rolls deeeeeeeeep. We’ve got Danny, Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria, Big Joe, the Pirate, Johnny Pom-pom, and Tito Ralph. They are used to relying on community and camaraderie to stay alive, so when Danny unexpectedly inherits property and they have a house for the first time, they run into new moral conundrums. The novel contains several parables, and Pilon (the “wise” one) often interprets the stories’ meanings for lessons that they can apply to their latest problem. His ingenuity shows us that if you want something badly enough, you can pretty much always find a morality loophole to justify wrongdoing. The book contains a lot of sin but also a lot of forgiveness; it redefines the delicate balance of good and evil contained in every one of us.

            Tortilla Flat is different from Steinbeck’s other work (like East of Eden, The Pearl, and The Red Pony) in that each chapter reads like a short story. There is an overarching narrative, but each chapter can also stand alone. Each chapter also happens to have a badass name. Apparently, it was a thing back then to have very descriptive chapter names (I’ve also seen this in A Room with a View). On one hand, it’s helpful to know what you’re going to get; on the other hand, it’s humorously specific and I can’t take it seriously. Two titles in Tortilla Flat that had me geeking:

 “How Danny’s Friends sought mystic treasure on St. Andrew’s Eve. How Pilon found it and later how a pair of serge pants changed ownership twice”

“How Danny was ensnared by a vacuum-cleaner and how Danny’s Friends rescued him”

            Let’s all acknowledge that vacuum cleaners are scary, including the grumpy one in The Brave Little Toaster. 
So, Danny—I get you. Aside from the giggles I got from reading the chapter titles, I take Steinbeck seriously because he’s a prolific author of Western literature like no other. Tortilla Flat receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

Steinbeck, John. Tortilla Flat. New York: Penguin Books, 1935. Print

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Let the Great World Spin

            Let the Great World Spin* is not a story about competing DJs sporting “Where’s Molly?” tanks. Although, while I’m on the subject of douchebags, let me highly recommend the movie We Are Your Friends starring Zac Effron. Mid-spin, he inspiringly questions the crowd, “Does it ever get better than this???” Cue echoes and awe. I’m serious in my recommendation.

            Instead, the 2009 novel by Colum McCann, takes a historical event, fictionalizes it, and uses it as a launching point for multiple overlapping stories. In 1974, Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope that he rigged between the Twin Towers. The novel portrays the same stunt performed by a fictitious character. *Fun* fact: tightrope walking is called funambulism.

            While the daring feat is entertaining in its own right, McCann chooses to shift focus. His novel features 12 + protagonists; each is connected in some way to the Twin Tower tightroper, but their stories take us in vastly different directions. Sometimes, we’re flung to the past. Sometimes, we’re punted to the future. Sometimes we chill in the present. Similar to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, the narrative bounces around, but there’s an element of fluidity given the connection between characters.

            A novel overflowing with protagonists is difficult to execute. How much time do you spend on each? Do you emphasize cohesion, having characters relate to each other in a complete closed loop, or do you allow for holes? In my opinion, McCann navigated these issues pretty well; however, I don’t think it’s entirely appropriate to congratulate a guy on the ability to create a bunch of problems for himself and then respond in a slightly above average way. Maybe build fewer hurdles and then jump over them perfectly? It’s like when dunk contest participants have an elaborate, impressive start but they’re not able to finish. Maybe my standards are too high-- but if your book wins a National Book Award for Fiction, when perfect predecessors like To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, Franny and Zooey, Everything That Rises Must Converge, and Slaughterhouse-Five only came as finalists, best believe I expect a slam-dunk.
            At his best (and his best is very, very good), I yearned for the continuation of those stories. Give me more of the recovered-addict seeking contrition. At his worst, I wondered about the relevancy or value of those stories. Don’t throw me an isolated chapter about a computer hacker with little to no context. These are my demands!

            In a post-script interview, McCann acknowledges the connection between the destruction of the Towers on 9/11 and the redemptive powers of a sprawling but cohesive city that comes together in times of darkness. Not just overwhelming darkness, like that of 9/11, but the little darknesses that plague everyday life. He breathes this message into his novel, and I’m thankful that his work exudes optimism even when it’s punctuated with sadness. Unfortunately, the extensive narration came across as excessive to me, despite his noble efforts. Let the Great World Spin receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*McCann, Colum. Let the Great World Spin. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

American Pastoral

            American Pastoral* is allegedly Philip Roth’s magnum opus; I think it’s a magnum shotgun that he used to shoot himself in the foot. In my opinion, the 1997 novel is terribly off-putting; yet, it won the Pulitzer Prize and it’s listed in Time’s All-Time 100 Novels (but then again, so is Naked Lunch). Why do I disagree with the larger literary world consensus?

            American Pastoral is #1 of Roth’s “American Trilogy”. I Married a Communist is #2 and The Human Stain is #3. Roth likes to write fiction rooted in historical fact. As a result, his works often serve as a critique of the time period and a reflection of the culture’s values. American Pastoral follows a wealthy, successful family in New Jersey in the 1960s. The main character, Seymour, represents the American dream: attractive, patriotic family man who works hard, respects others, and capitalizes on opportunity. On the surface, he’s killing it; beneath the surface, everything is falling apart. In the end, we discover “the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things” (Roth, 423).

            Fortunately, there are plenty of novels that take conventional American ideals and turn them on their head without boring you to death (ahem, anything by Steinbeck). Put simply, Roth uses too many words about too many uninteresting, unimportant things. He fixates on minutia. He’ll reveal a shocking plot point and then belabor us with superfluous fact until we’re totally sidetracked. When an object is mentioned, we know its color, size, and manufacturer. Description can sometimes be effective, but in Roth’s case, it’s consistent sensory overload in a way that detracts from the meat of the story. I’m a Texan. Don’t take away my meat.

            To add insult to injury, he moves through past, present, and future too much. He transitions fluidly—we know what era he’s referring to—but it’s often unnecessary. I find myself repeatedly wanting him to stay on course and complete a thought without interjecting a flashback. I appreciate Roth’s time hopping much more in The Plot Against America because it serves a purpose every time.

            Overall, I valued American Pastoral more during the process of synthesizing and reviewing the novel than when I was actively reading. Because of the length and nonlinear timing, I discovered connections and mystery while looking back. I believe that Roth possesses a unique skill in accomplishing that specific feat, but it does not totally override the fact that a real-time reading of the text is arduous and unenjoyable. American Pastoral receives 2 out of 5 camel humps.

*Roth, Philip. American Pastoral. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

            Ken Kesey participated in a CIA program known as Project MKUltra. The project experimented with various drugs and techniques on human subjects to expand methods of interrogation and torture. Kesey worked as an orderly at a mental hospital where some MKUltra tests took place. He volunteered to partake and personally recorded his experiences, expressing a fondness for LSD. No, this is not an InfoWars article. Gross.

            Kesey’s role at the mental institution helped him hit a sweet spot in his writing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest*. By working the night shift at the hospital, he could observe patients from the institution’s perspective. Alternatively, his involvement in experiments (with questionable legality and ethics) allowed him to see from the patient’s side. The line between “sane” and “insane” blurs when you realize firsthand that larger forces are at play, designed to manipulate. You are a pawn in their big game.

            Checkmate! Kesey isn’t anyone’s bitch. After reading about him in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I’m impressed with his ability to be in all the craziness but also above all the craziness. He’s a participant but also seemingly omniscient. I mean, the guy elected to try electroshock therapy on himself so that he could accurately write about the experience in Cuckoo.

            And, in my opinion, he nails it. Kesey’s vivid characters are no accident. Our narrator is “Chief” Bromden, a schizophrenic half-Native American. He and the rest of the ward are greatly affected when a new, raucous man, Randal McMurphy, is committed to the hospital. McMurphy is not mentally ill in the conventional sense—he uses insanity as a means to avoid his sentence at a prison work farm. Gradually, he brings clarity to the other patients who had formerly subserviently yielded to every order from above. The head nurse, Nurse Ratched, is not pleased with the patients’ newfound gall, and she and McMurphy butt heads in big ways.

            Kesey is the ultimate real-life anti-conformist, so it’s fitting that he’d write a novel that addresses the oppressive powers of institutions—specifically government-sanctioned ones. Ironically, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of many novels often found on banned-books lists. Nothing like trying to stifle a book about the cruelty of stifling an individual’s agency. 

            Mental health services in our country are still inadequate, but they’re not as barbaric as they were during the time of Kesey’s writing. Of course, the hospital in the book is symbolic of other domineering authorities that Kesey railed against; however, there is also a literal denunciation of mental health procedures within the novel, particularly electroshock therapy.  

            While Kesey’s novel receives largely positive reception, there are some complaints about the text’s overt racism (the orderlies’ race is ridiculed and the N-word is used) and underlying sexism (McMurphy fights “the matriarchy” aka a woman nurse and generally women are depicted as conniving to emasculate the men around them). McMurphy’s questionable character certainly warrants discussion, but it doesn’t make Cuckoo a *bad book* unworthy of reading. As I mention in my review of The Awakening, characters are complex and imperfect, which is exactly what makes them interesting, McMurphy is a sexist, racist pig, so he speaks and acts like a sexist, racist, pig. That doesn’t mean that his crusade against conformity should be ignored. His character flaws and insecurities add to the intricacy of the discussion.

            Equipped with the knowledge of Kesey’s background that contributed to the unique perspective in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I give the novel 4 out of 5 camel humps. In the future, I would love to compare his work to Girl Interrupted, which is a more contemporary display of the problems that continue to plague mental health diagnoses and treatment.

*Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York, The Viking Press, Inc., 1962. Print.