Um, so I had some spare time while I was in China. How much spare time? Here are some reviews from my reading list last year.
The Brothers Karamazov
A feeling of enormous jealousy comes over me every time a friend posts “Person/Thing X is my spirit animal,” especially when it’s true. I should have a spirit animal. I want a patronus.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have found my patronus, and its name is Mitya Karamazov. I’d always thought Hal Incandenza was the closest thing to my spirit animal, he who moves but does not feel, but in fact the opposite is true. Mitya’s manic remorse, passionate affection, and uncattled lines of thought evoked everything one could want from the human condition. He is an idiot in the same dubious sense that Einstein never learned to tie his shoes. What seems to be missing in Mitya is common sense, but I suspect an average amount exists. It just got swallowed up by all of his other larger-than-life characteristics.
There are allegedly no truly original ideas in literature. I respectfully posit that following the murder trial of Mitya Karamazov and Alyosha’s challenged faith are an experience not found anywhere else in literature.
A book might be complex when someone asks what you thought about it and you say, “I’m not the best person to ask; I only read it once”. I really do think my opinion is equally as meaningless as someone who’s never read it. But here it is: Thomas Pynchon’s brilliance made him its bitch. I think he probably had twenty drafts and each time he made the draft better, he added another left-field thought to it until the book was one long coherent stream of WTF that perfectly illuminated one mode of perspective about warfare, but was then in a language galaxies away from modern English.
With all this considered, if you read the beginning of the book, where Pirate Prentice and Co. are hunkered down listening for the Rocket, and you don’t want to read the rest, there’s something wrong with you.
This Side of Paradise
Another reason Gravity’s Rainbow was confusing: I unwittingly swiped my Kindle and it brought me to Fitzgerald’s novel. For about 300 pages, I wondered who Amory Blaine was and when Pynchon was going to get back to the part about the V-2 rocket. Yes, Gravity’s Rainbow was so befuddling that I sincerely believed these were the same story.
Tender is the Night is still Fitzgerald’s best work. Read this one if you want another Good Old Boy Goes To Princeton Classic.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
I really only began Gravity’s Rainbow, which has found its way into three reviews now, because Amazon recommended it for fans of Infinite Jest, and I will read anything proximally related to Infinite Jest. The essays were, of course, divergent from any normal man’s thoughts, hysterical, and profound. It was quite amazing to see how easily DFW can incorporate accessible academia into everyday life, like in the David Lynch essay, the Television Is Scary essay, the rising tennis pro essay, and the Dave Isn’t a Tennis Pro essay. The only essay that wasn’t designed for a wide interest was the Death of the Author essay response essay. (I enjoyed that one, though.) This collection was, in my opinion, geared around the two heavy hitters: an essay about a trip to the state fair and the weird subcultures engendered; and an essay about the perfected pleasure machines known as the cruise lines. It was like Dave playing chess with the living, breathing theme of entertainment and, like the game against the nine-year-old on-deck, he got his ass kicked.
To fanboys of Infinite Jest, the book makes you feel more incompetent as an author. Away from the elaborate plot devices at Ennet House and Ennet Tennis Academy, he finds the same vein of painful humor in the bumbling nobodies who occupy real life. It was like throwing back the curtain to find out Oz was just as powerful without the theatrics, that he was using those for a different brand of fun.
War and Peace
Lest you call me a liar, I’ll admit I read twenty percent of this book in 2011. I’m going to catch some flak for criticizing one of the greatest books ever; so it goes. The problem I have with War and Peace is mostly from my own idea that, when dealing with themes, the writer should know what kind of power he/she has over them. My favorite books are those with characters who respond to theme, with no definite restrictions from the author. The characters are allowed to place their hopes and dreams up against the presence of fate. We can explore instead of navigate. Another kind of book is the one where it operates as a quasi-thesis. The author has ideas about the world and uses fiction to draw them out. I was one hundred percent certain that War and Peace was the former kind until the last chapter. There were philosophical interpositions throughout, but, unlike Moby Dick, the reader probably had the notion that the author was commenting on their wartime plight rather than using them to illustrate a point.
The last chapter, without spoilers, was a long exegesis on the inevitability of history and I wish it weren’t there, intriguing though it was. Something else I was supposed to mention… oh, right. This novel is monumentally important to literature and isn’t even debatable as your requirement.
I have this thing where clips from movies slip into my head and drastically undercut the sanctity of great works. For Moby Dick, it was Robert Downey Jr. in The Soloist raving about Jamie Foxx’s prodigious character: “I wish I cared about anything the way he cared about music!” Well, Melville, I wish I cared about anything the way you cared about whales. But I also kind of hate you for the level of detail in this novel. There are about 10 million things I didn’t need to know about whales that I now know. I need that brain space for other things, like cynicism and jumbled digressions. If an artist used the amount of information in your book to draw a picture of the Pequod, the ship would come sailing off the page and into the open sea. You’re a brilliant man.
P.S. I read fifty percent of this in 2011.
The Adventures of Augie March
Another product of my search for anything like Infinite Jest. I was looking for Seize the Day, but God forbid Amazon should care about novellas. The book follows the titular character as he tiptoes the line between a proper boy and a knockaround thug, but mostly focuses on how he allows himself to be influenced by his friends and family. The strongest character, by far, is the dictatorial grandmother; the story may have done well to keep her involved throughout the novel. I guess the underlying problem with this book was that, when he found himself farther from civilized society, the book relied on him to carry it forward; and, like I said, a product of the environment does not push the book forward.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Here we find a nearly fantastic novel whose only flaw is the unprogressive era in which it was written. I think people forget that certain truths have to be invented, just like the car or the airplane. There has always been the option to be good or evil, but asking the author to be the ‘good’ we have today is like asking him to write the final draft on the first try.
This book is hilariously sexist, is what I’m saying. Tess spends no fewer than thirty pages espousing her belief in the total domination of the husband over the wife. Her sin – potentially disgracing him – is not just a fate worse than death; it’s a fate for which death is believed too kind.
The second sin that this book commits is telling rather than showing. What do I know about Angel Clare? He’s the most perfect being ever created because Hardy said so. The reader can’t fall in love when he or she is a member of the literary jury. I would recommend reading The Warden over Tess if you’re short on free time, where expostulatory narrative is right at home. You will get swept up by this book, too, though.
Jesus Christ. Holy Jesus Christ. The violence. The last page… it will never leave you. Greatest Western of all-time. I won’t sully the book with another extraneous word.
(Read forty percent in 2011-2012)
The most inimitable aspect of Kafka’s writing is his ability to place absurdism two paces ahead of when it actually occurs. By the time it dawns on you that a legal meeting is taking place in a broom closet, K. and the law clerk are already about to adjourn. That’s hugely important to the social commentary because you’re always laughing or afraid at the wrong time, much like an innocent man who’s getting helplessly fucked over by the legal system. Don’t try to copy his style, it will end up like Wingdings.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Diaz became the Latino version of what Jonathan Franzen was made out to be. I’m a reader who is impressed accidentally and there’s nothing I disdain more than a writer who wants every sentence to be the New York Botanical Garden. (Fine, there’s a thousand things I disdain more.)
This aversion also applies to the idea that a book is about culture merely because it takes place within that culture. Diaz crosses neither of these lines even once. I have never wanted someone to get laid more than Oscar. Not even my best friends on a two year drought. Please read what 21st century heart looks, feels, and sounds like.
I read through the chapter about the propaganda model and elections, then I quit. Not for lack of interest. I’ve never been so disheartened by reality, all grains and mounds of salt considered. Maybe I’ll pick it up again when America does something really cool and I need to level out my patriotism. It’s that FUBAR.