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.


Growing Up is Painful: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

perksI wanted to like this book. I really did. I normally enjoy the bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel, but for some reason I just could not get into this book. It felt like it was trying to hard to be hip. It reads like Catcher in the Rye set in the 1990s, but instead of Holden Caulfield’s self-confidence we have Charlie’s lack of self-esteem and low self-confidence. There are moments when the novel manages to take off, especially the descriptions of driving through a tunnel and the moment when Charlie says “we are infinite”, but these do not carry the novel.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower concerns Charlie, a young boy starting high school who lives his life on the margins being a “wallflower”, watching what everyone else is doing rather than participating. He meets Patrick and Sam and quickly becomes close friends with them. He is romantically attracted to Sam, but she is several years older and interested in an older boy named Craig. Through these two characters, Charlie is introduced to a world of misfits and outsiders in the high school world. They watch and re-enact the Rocky Horror Picture Show weekly, they party together and are critical of the popular kids, and watch foreign films. I can see why this book has become a cult classic as my own high school experience was not one of being on the inside circles of the high school world. Yet there consistently felt like something was lacking in the novel.

Part of this may come from the epistolary form that the novel takes. It is written in letters by Charlie to someone he does not know. He needs someone to talk to, so he writes these anonymous letters, changing the names of people so that the recipient will never know who this is from. At first, this narrative technique seems innovative and interesting, but it soon wears thin (or at least it did for me). The recipient of the letters becomes a kind of anonymous figure through whom we, as readers, come to know Charlie and his friends. In the end, it seems more like a narrative trick than something that enriches the novel. The epistolary form is a difficult style of narration, and I’m not sure it is pulled off here.

This novel deals with serious issues including sexuality, violence, homosexuality, and drug abuse. It does not beat around the bush with these issues nor does it glamorize them. In fact, the pot smoking and drinking appear more as crutches to deal with emotional difficulties rather than a kind of alluring habit (except for, perhaps, two instances). I appreciate the frankness of this approach, but I wonder how much it works for a young adult audience.

Charlie has an interesting relationship with his English teacher, Bill, who assigns him extra reading. This part annoyed me as well as Chbobsky name drops all the “cool” books like Camus’s The Stranger, William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. This came across as a moment where Chbobsky is trying to be hip and name an alternative canon of reading that many high school kids discover. The fact that it was first published by MTV Books suggests that this is an intentional marketing scheme. He also name-drops Catcher in the Rye, but I could not help thinking that this novel is a homage to Salinger’s work that only achieves mixed results.

I would not recommend this book for most readers. If you really enjoy coming-of-age narratives from a marginalized perspective, it might be worth reading.

Chbobsky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: MTV Books, 1999.