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.

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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.

Short and Sweet: Train Dreams

Train_DreamsAFJ has been bugging me to read this one for a while. He purchased it for my birthday and I think this is a great gift.  Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a (short) novella set in the Panhandle region of northern Idaho during the 1930s. It is almost minimalist as dialogue and narration is cut down to a minimum, yet there is one element that keeps it from being strictly minimal. At a certain point, magic realism seems to interrupt the narrative and I had mixed feelings about this. It seemed to jar with what had come before. This feeling might come from expectation that Johnson is following a Hemingway/Steinbeck line in the novel. It deals with a working class character in a poor area. There is death, sorrow, trains, and a loner protagonist. But there is also magic and wonder. I suppose this is more my fault than Johnson’s but I note it nonetheless.

The novella centres on Robert Grainier, a jack-of-all-trades who builds bridges, works in lumber camps, homesteads, and runs a delivery business. His life stretches across the early and middle portion of the 20th century although most of the narrative focuses on the 1930s. Grainier is a loner, like Hemingway’s Nick Adams. After the tragic death of his wife and child, Grainier returns to his plot of land and rebuilds his life on his own. He is a quiet and stoic figure. There is a rich cast of itinerant workers that Grainier interacts with including the humorous scene when Eddie tries to woo the widow Claire who seems more interested in Robert himself.

Trains are a constant thread throughout the novella (as the title suggests). Grainier works on their tracks, hears them outside his house, and travels on them to get around the Panhandle region.  I really liked this use of trains probably because after doing a fair bit of historical research on Canadian railways I feel like we as a culture lost something when we replaced the train with the automobile as our preferred mode of transit.

Johnson beautifully paints the Panhandle region and its strange beauty. A number of years ago I bicycled along the Yakima River and I had very vivid recollections of that experience reading this novella. Train Dreams evokes a lost way of life, one where humans lived more closely with the land and their horizon of travels was much more limited. I would not say this novella is nostalgic even if it made me feel that way. The introduction of tall tales and superstition enriched the narrative even if I did not love the ending (sorry J).

I would recommend this book to those with an interest in 1930s stories or those looking for a good short read.

Johnson, Denis. Train Dreams. 2002. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2011. Print.

Tale of a Tragic Love: Ethan Frome

Ethan FromeIn order to play a bit of catch-up, I picked up another novella. Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome met the bill as it is fairly short and I managed to get through it in essentially one sitting. I have not read Wharton before and I’m not sure that I plan to in the future after this one. The novella, published in 1911, is one of her more popular works and helped to establish her career when it first emerged. It concerns an unnamed narrator who becomes stuck in Starkfield, Massachusetts, a small New England town, over the winter. While there, he is intrigued by Ethan Frome, a quiet crippled man who comes into town once daily. The bulk of the novella is his piecing together of Frome’s story – who he is, what he does, and why he is crippled.

After reading it, I felt like the story itelf was slight, or, perhaps, passe. Frome rushes into a marriage to Zenobia after caring for first his father and then his mother’s final illnesses. Zenobia, who had come to help with his mother, soon becomes ill and Frome feels shackled in his marriage. This all changes when Mattie Silver, Zenobia’s abandoned cousin, comes to help with the housework which Zenobia cannot do when she is ill. Frome and Mattie are attracted to each other and things happen. This narrative in itself was not that appealling to me as I found the relationship overwritten and overwrought. The sense of fate or doom hanging over Ethan was too trite for my liking, and his unending passivity was grating. Of course, this is a 21st century reader speaking, so the question of how he could get out of a lifeless marriage no longer has the same kind of emotional charge that it did in the early 20th century.

The story really got interesting, for me, when I glanced at some of the criticism included in the Norton edition of Ethan Frome that I had borrowed from the library. It alerted me to the importance of the frame narrative. In my first reading, I had taken Ethan’s narrative as simple fact, but one critic, Cynthia Griffen Wolff, points out how Ethan’s tale may not actually be true. The frame narrative does not condone the narrator’s interpretation, so that what we read is only his “vision of the story” (12). In hindsight, I had totally missed this kind of narrative complexity. I found myself mulling over the events of the story and wondering why the narrator feels compelled to read Frome’s tragedy as a grand tragedy. From this vantage point, the novella is much more interesting.

At the same time, the frame narrative is not enough to make this a great read. It is clear to me that narratives of tragic love are not my thing. They do not interest me as they often have very flat characters and narrative arcs. Ethan always felt like a beaten-down man who has no luck, Zenobia feels like a controlling wife, and Mattie comes across as a naive dolt. At the least, reading this novella reminded me that romances are really not my thing.

I would not recommend this novella to readers. It felt dated and somewhat tired. I have read narratives like this before (no fault of Wharton’s to be sure). Perhaps if you enjoyed Victorian literature, you might enjoy this. No guarantees though.

Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. 1911. Eds. Kristin O. Lauer and Cynthia Griffin Wolff. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995. Print.