Fly Fishing and Family: A River Runs Through It

6a00d8341c627153ef01156f15bf24970cI just zipped through Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying a novella about fly-fishing. Now, in the interest of forthrightness, I am not a fisherman and probably will not ever be. There is some form of patience involved that I do not possess. However, Maclean’s short narrative did get me thinking that maybe I should give it another shot. Anyways, in the Foreword Annie Proulx writes taht this novella is “one of the rare truly great stories in American literature – allegory, requiem, memoir – and so powerful and enormous in symbol and regret for a lost time and a lost brother, for human mortality and the consciousness of beauty, that it becomes part of the life experience of the reader, unforgettable” (xi). This is high praise, and I’m not quite sure that my own reading experience of A River matches up to it, but I do think that she does a good job summarizing what the novel gets at.

Maclean’s novella is both a fishing story about two brothers and an attempt by the narrator to come to grips with his inability to help his alcoholic, hard-living brother out. Like Hemingway’s work, fishing is a masculine pursuit that has careful rituals that must always be observed, requires skill, strength, and dexterity, and becomes an almost mystical activity that connects man back to nature. I am more than a little skeptical about these kinds of narratives, particularly because of how they set up nature as an exclusively male domain for the testing of “manliness”.  The unnamed narrator is an older brother to Paul, a journalist whose sole goal in life is to fish as much as possible and enjoy himself without working too hard. However, his idea of enjoyment involves a fair amount of alcohol and he also has inherited a feisty Scottish temper that often lands him in trouble. The narrator and his Scot-Presbyterian minister father are caught unable to help Paul, but instead watch as his life begins to fall apart. Paralleling this, the narrator is asked by his wife to also help her brother, Neal, who has his own problems which also involve alcohol and an inability to come to grips with reality. Most of the helping happens around fishing trips that achieve various degrees of success.

Maclean packs his novella with humor, irony, poignancy, and a number of reflections on faith and the broken human condition. I was taken in by his smooth and free-flowing prose. The ending nearly brought me to tears in a coffee shop, no mean feat, and I feel like this is a story that I may come back to at some point. A university roommate of mine loved this book and he is now an avid fly-fisherman. I cannot say for certain whether the novella caused this, but Maclean is able to paint fly-fishing in a sublime light.

I would recommend this book for fans of fishing or readers.

Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.

A Most Intriguing Woman: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

breakfast-at-tiffanysI am still not sure what to think of Truman Capote’s 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I read it in a single day, more like two but the bulk of it on a single bus trip, and was left a little ambivalent. On the one hand, I really liked the narrative structure of the novella: it is told by an unnamed narrator who lives in the same building as Holly Golightly, the ambiguous female who yearns to eat breakfast at Tiffany’s (a New York diamond store). The narrator has a changing relationship to Holly and struggles to come to grips with her interruption of his life. Most of the novella is a recollection of his relationship to her framed by his meeting with Joe Bell, a bartender whom both the narrator and Tiffany knew quite well. Bell shows the narrator a photo of an African sculptor posing with what is clearly a sculpture of Holly and gives a similarly strange tale of how she came through this area. On the other hand, I did not like the way that Holly becomes a kind of sexual pariah in the novel. Capote called her an American geisha, but the male characters all treat her as some kind of property whom they wish to own.

The fact hat Holly cannot be owned is what drives the plot of the novel as she seems to get herself into one troubling position after another. The narrator follows her various changes of men with some jealousy as he hopes to get her for himself. Instead, he becomes a kind of brotherly figure for her (she even calls him Fred at one point after her own brother), listening to her problems, helping her when needed, and even offering her an escape from a drunken and angry man. As Capote begins to reveal more of Holly’s back story, she becomes a paradox of a person: a kind of self-made geisha from a rural southern background that becomes the black sheep of New York society’s gossip column. She then disappears from America for good after a naïve relationship with a Mafia boss attracts police attention.

What I think Capote wants readers to sense is the actual absence of Holly herself from the narrative. The character she performs is certainly there, but she herself seems absent in some way. At the very beginning of the narrative she is literally absent, but throughout the rest of the novella she felt missing to me as well. This is, perhaps, Capote’s point: she has been driven into the position of being a bird that various wealthy men would like to trap in a cage (an image that haunts the text). The fact that she doesn’t is, perhaps, meant to be seen as a triumph of the female protagonist. However, I felt like the fact that she had to use sex to get anywhere dislocates any kind of emancipatory power the  novella might have. For in doing so, Holly seems to reinforce the sense that women are simply sexual objects to be possessed, rather than showing women as full and complete human beings. Perhaps, this is an anachronistic criticism, but I just had the sense that most feminist readers would not be happy with the book.

I would recommend the novella for fans of the movie, but I am not sure who else would enjoy it given my ambivalent reaction.

Capote, Truman. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. 1958. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.

Going Back to a Classic: The Stranger

l_etranger_albert_camusIn the process of struggling to really get into Lee Maracle’s Ravensong (I will talk more about this in the next post), I picked up Albert Camus’ The Stranger to change things up a bit. I had read Camus’ The Fall in a philosophy class a long time ago, so  I kind of knew what to expect. And I wasn’t disappointed either. The Stranger is a deceptively simple narrative about Meursault, an Algerian, who is confronted with the death of his mother and, under bizarre circumstances, decides to shoot an Arab. The first portion of the novel deals with the process of burying his mother while Part Two deals with the fallout from his erratic action. The language is deceptively simple, clean and spare, while the narrative is cut down to the bone. However, this deceives as the content beneath the novella is a deeply thought-out meditation on meaning, existence, and how to live in the world.

What I remember of The Fall is that the protagonist slowly pulls the reader deeper and deeper into his twisted moral world. The Stranger is somewhat different as we are presented with a flat narrator who seems incapable of feeling emotion. When he arrives at his mother`s coffin, he foregoes the opportunity to see her face one last time, much to the dismay of the old age home`s warden. Throughout the novella, you never really get a sense of Meursault because he comes across as a very laid-back person who seems to have reached key decisions about life and the universe. Meursault refuses to be pulled into any shows of sentimentality either by his mother`s death, his trial for murder, or even the abrupt end to his budding love interest with Marie because of his impending execution. Faced with the “benign indifference of the universe,” Meursault has emptied himself of all artifice, all cheap sentiment, and even a sense of morality. Instead, he does as he pleases, without planning and immersed only in the present.

Of course, this model of life is deeply offensive to the other characters in the novella, including the jury who hands him his death sentence and even Marie at a few points. The Stranger has one of the most compelling court-room scenes I have read in a long time, if only for the way that the first-person narration is so disinterested in the events themselves. In the court, the prosecution successfully snares Meursault`s previous actions, which are odd and unemotional at best, and spins them into a picture of Meursault as a great monstrosity that must be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law. In doing this, Camus shows his mastery of the plot as he carefully weaves everything that has come before together into the climactic scenes of the novella. It is done masterfully and was a real pleasure to read. Meursault`s final actions, which I won`t give away, are both awe-inspiring and terrifying for the way he has reasoned himself into a position of great absurdity (something Camus himself was big on; he was also a war correspondent, so he saw some pretty terrible things to convince him of the ultimate indifference of the universe).

I am not sure I agree with where Meursault and Camus want to take us, but there is a deep pleasure in reading this masterfully written novella. Do not be fooled by its seemingly shallow surface, but take the time to revel in what Camus brings.

I highly recommend this book to any fans of philosophy and readers who enjoy spare prose (like Cormac McCarthy`s in The Road or any of Raymond Carver`s short stories).

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. 1946. Trans. by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Print.

* This is not the cover of the version I read, but it looks so good I just had to put it up.

Short, But Surprisingly Complex: Of Mice and Men

OfMiceAndMenI have to confess that even though I profess a liking to American literature, I have never read any John Steinbeck. Cue the tomatoes and boo-birds. Well, I can now say that I have, having blazed through his Of Mice and Men. And what a novella it is! It comes in at a very slight 118 pages (with a reasonably large font) and I’m pretty sure that this was the quickest read so far this year. Yet the novella reads so smoothly; Steinbeck has eschewed all extra detail and explanation for a concise and cohesive narrative. The narrative is relatively uncomplicated with two drifters, Lennie – a gentle giant – and George – a short, smooth talker, coming to work on a ranch in Soledad, California (not far from Steinbeck’s own birthplace of Salinas, CA) during the Dirty Thirties. Like most of the drifters, they both dream of owning a small piece of land with a farm and some mixed livestock. The problem with this dream is that Lennie, a character who is “slow,” or in politically correct terms “suffers from mental illness,” tends to force their hasty exit from a town before they build up enough money to buy a farm. The ending, which I won’t reveal, packs a real punch; I’m almost certain my jaw actually dropped despite having some vague recollection of someone telling me the ending before. I am not going to get into disability studies mode and pull apart Steinbeck’s treatment of Lennie, but it is remarkably compassionate. Of course, the other characters’ treatment of Lennie leaves something to be desired.

What made Of Mice and Men stand out for me was the way that it captured the zeitgeist of the Dirty Thirties. If you’ve seen any photos of the 1930s, you’ll know that it was an era of immense upheaval with a huge population of wandering workers (men, women, and children alike). The men that work on the Soledad ranch are all part of this migrant group, moving from place to place in search of a paycheque and relief from their misery. Of course, as Of Mice and Men makes clear, many of these men squander their money on prostitutes and alcohol, but it really was not a good time to be without a job in North America. It is easy to idealize or romanticize these wandering hoboes and their free-wheeling, train-hopping ways (see Into the Wild for an updated version of these men), but Steinbeck refuses to do so.* Their lives are far from simple and the ending will leave you with dark doubts about the desirability of this lifestyle. The promise of a land of one’s own remains as tantalizingly close but firmly out of reach by the end of the novella.

Now, I know that Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer prize and is probably a more detailed portrait of the Dirty Thirties in the US, but Of Mice and Men is a great little read. If you haven’t read Steinbeck before, I would start here. Of Mice and Men is very easy to pick up and a quick little read. You could probably even read this book in one sitting, yet it is a tight plot with plenty to chew on.

I highly recommend Of Mice and Men for all readers.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. 1937. New York: Bantam Classics, 1958. Print.

 

*I don`t totally hate Into the Wild. The Eddie Vedder soundtrack is great, there is some gorgeous scenery, and the film’s narrative isn’t half bad. I`m just uneasy with the romanticisation that it lends itself to.

Vampires Before They Became the Hottest Thing: I Am Legend

480282670_bfefb7cb08I was a little skeptical about Richard Matheson’s 1954 I Am Legend. I’ve recently become tired of apocalypse narratives largely because of the over-saturation of the cultural market with them. I was also a little wary of vampire stories (of course, this novel predates the Twilight craze by a solid half-century). However, Matheson’s novella is a fun and interesting read. He does good work exploring the psychological tensions of Robert Neville, possibly the last man on Earth (or at least in his city) in the wake of a cataclysmic disease that transforms most of the population into blood-thirsty vampires. But I think the real strength of the book lies in the ending which puts forward a number of interesting questions and really throws the narrative in a totally unexpected direction.

The plot is as follows: Neville survives in a fortified house, operating in the day when the vampires are in some kind of coma, scrounging supplies and trying to figure out what caused the epidemic and whether there might be a cure for it. When night descends, Neville locks himself in and drinks himself to sleep most nights to stop the incessant yelling and taunting from his former neighbours. So far this is standard fare and some of Neville`s gripes about living feel a little worn. The narrative gets interesting when he first discovers a dog (a central character in the most recent film adaptation of the movie starring Will Smith) and then a woman. These beings awaken an intense desire to live and be with other beings, but given his circumstances this proves unobtainable.

I Am Legend`s ending is somewhat predictable given that most of the novel sets up how pointless Neville’s quest to survive is. At one point, he even thinks of himself as a vegetable, living out a pre-programmed life without desire or emotion. However, the final scene is incredible given how it shifts what has come before. *Spoiler* Neville looks out from his cell after having been captured by the vampires, who have been terrified of him because of his killing of them, and realizes that he himself has now become a monster to Earth`s new inhabitants. The book ends with the great line “I am legend,” capping Neville’s attempts to dispel the myths surrounding vampires to get at the truth of their existence. In this move, Matheson moves right back to the world of myth and legend but with humans as the core. I loved this twist. It gives Matheson’s narrative philosophical depth and unsettles conceptions of humanity in interesting ways. I think I Am Legend is required reading for any fan of post-apocalyptic narratives, partly because it does it so well but more importantly because it does it intelligently.

I highly recommend I Am Legend to any fan of zombie/vampire/post-apocalyptic narratives.

Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. 1954. Montreal: Bantam Books, 1964. Print.

Less Shocking Than the Film, But Still: A Clockwork Orange

orangeI admit that I approached Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange with a fair bit of trepidation. Watching Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel was a shocking revelation for me a number of years ago. However, I seemed to have missed the point in the film, but, thankfully, the book corrected this for me. It is easy to focus on the ultra-violence of Alex and his droogs, nadsat for henchmen or gang members, rather than on the overall moral questions that Burgess asks in the novel. For those who have not had the experience of either novel or film, Alex is the first person narrator of A Clockwork Orange and he leads a gang of four youth who terrorise the streets of England (at least that’s where I think it is set) at night. The novel can be quite difficult to get into at first because Burgess has completely adopted Alex’s nadsat, teen slang, that takes at least several pages to get used to reading. Alot of the controversy over Kubrick’s film and Burgess’s book focuses on the ultra-violence (Alex’s term) they commit, and, trust me, this is not family friendly material.

What this criticism misses are the second and third acts of the book. In the second act, Alex is put in prison for killing an elderly woman and, once there, he undergoes a radical new therapy to cut his sentence. The new therapy is a form of extreme aversion therapy whereby he is drugged to feel sick to his stomach while he is forced to watch films of violence, rape, and brutality. Eventually his body takes over and he becomes violently ill with the thought of or sight of any form of violence. His problem now “fixed,” being unable to commit any crimes simply because his body will not let him, he is free to go. The third act concerns his attempts to return and re-enter society. He is caught by some former victims and beat up several times before he tries to take his own life. In the hospital, doctors manage to reverse the psychological treatment and the Government is saved from a growing scandal that Alex had become an unwitting centre of. The film ends with Alex once again able to enjoy listening to Beethoven’s music, but the book does not end here. It gives a final chapter where, and I think this is important in terms of what the novel is doing, Alex grows out of his violent youthful ways.* Although he blames what he does on youth, he decides to leave that life behind and find a wife so he can have children.

At the heart of A Clockwork Orange, then, is the question of free will and choice. If a human, even a criminal, has no ability to choose, then are they really living a moral or full life? The epilogue of the novel suggests that Alex must choose to leave his violent ways behind and that any attempt to short-circuit violence by removing Alex’s ability to choose is short-sighted. I am convinced that Burgess is not interested in indulging in violence for its own sake (unlike say Fight Club), but instead uses Alex as an extreme case for a moral dilemma concerning the human condition. Yes, Alex is an evil man, but does this legitimize totalitarian measures including the removal of the human ability to choose? This question nicely sidesteps many issues including whether Alex should be allowed to continue brutalizing others so that his free will can remain intact and what forms of punishment are appropriate or necessary.

I should say that I think the novel does a much better job of addressing this question because Kubrick’s film can be construed as revelling in the violence and rape. In many ways, the visual impact of the film can prevent access to the deeper questions of free will and choice whereas Burgess’s novel often sidesteps direct depictions of what Alex and his gang do. Moreover, there are a number of parts, including the final chapter, that do not make Kubrick’s film and hence make it easier to construe in a manner it was not intended. This is not to say that Kubrick’s film is not good in its own right, but rather that the two works achieve very different things and that each should be judged on its own merit.

I would not recommend this book to sensitive readers, but for those interested in a controversial yet deeply thoughtful philosophical book, I would say jump in.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. 1962. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2011. Print.

* Apparently the early American versions of the novel omitted this chapter, so be sure to look for a copy that includes a 21st chapter (part 7 of part 3) if you are going to read it.

The Book That Started It All: The Time Machine

200px-The_Time_Machine_Classics_Illustrated_133 (1)Okay, well not really. There are numerous precursors to science fiction that predate H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. However, I think this is one of the classic pre-science fiction science fiction books. It is a short novella about a man who manages to invent a time machine and then goes on an eye-opening trip far into the future. It extrapolates on Darwin’s theory of evolution and late Victorian ideas about cultural evolution while adding enough adventure and suspense to make it a quick and enjoyable read.

I suppose I had preconceived notions of the Time Traveler going back in time, but he does not do this. Instead, he goes forward to a technologically-regressed state of humanity (or should I say states of humanity). There are now  two species of humanity: the Eloi, cute, short, and generally vapid beings that live on the surface, and the Morlocks, ape-like, nocturnal underground beings, who are at first elusive then ominously ever-present as the narrative continues. Wells skillfully keeps readers guessing at the mystery of who has taken the Traveler’s time machine once he arrives in the far future by slowly introducing the Morlocks along with the Traveler’s theories about how humans evolved into two species. He throws in enough mysterious symbols (sphinxes, Phoenician symbols, great but decayed buildings) to build up an aura of mystery and intrigue even if it reads as a little date in the early 21st century. He uses a frame narrative of the Traveler explaining his exploits to his fellow Victorian gentlemen, but this does not intrude or interrupt the narrative so much as add some minor depth to the story.

What I found most interesting was the way the story was not so much about adventure (except on the surface level), but more about a philosophical imagining of how humanity might regress from its current state into a more primitive one. Wells is quite critical of the myth of human progress in this book and explores in this book how the class system might actually hinder humanity. There are interesting tidbits on evolution as the Traveler hypothesizes that the eventual lack of war, ambition, conflict, or tension brought about by the eventual triumph of the capitalist system causes the evolution of humanity into two different states. The bulk of the narrative deals with this interesting setup but the Traveler does go even farther into the future and witnesses the final decline of Earth itself. In this moment, Wells becomes existential as the Traveler wonders both implicitly and explicitly what the whole of human history can mean given the vast scope of geological time and the eventual collapse of all life itself as stars die out.

Wells’s novella deserves the fame it has achieved and stands up as an excellent piece of writing. I am glad I took the time to read it as it is one of those classics that most people “know” but have not actually read it. I would highly recommend reading it. It is short, punchy and not too idea heavy or contextually specific to be inaccessible  I read a Broadview edition which included very helpful annotations for the more arcane bits of Victorian lore/culture.

Wells, H.G. The Time Machine. 1895. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2001. Print.