Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Catcher in the Rye

by JD Salinger

That Holden Caulfield, he just kills me. And he's certainly no phony.
A mistake when reviewing a book is to wait a bit after reading it, since in my case, it means I've forgotten a lot of amusing turns of phrase. Things that kill him and how phony just about everything is sticks with you, though.

Thus, since I am prevented from wittily writing in a faux-Holden voice, I guess I must constrain myself to what I actually think.
The first thing that comes to mind after reading it is, sadly, "why the hell would you kill someone having this book in your pocket?" and then you're suddenly restricted to giving your opinion in some sort of opposition to someone else's interpretation. Very sad.

The Catcher in the Rye appeals to me greatly. It tells the story of Holden Caulfield, told by the same, as he moves through life the days after his latest expulsion, how he treats other people, exposes them as phonies and his denunciations of the world at large.
What makes it compelling is that it is written directly as Holden Caulfield. It doesn't veer away and doesn't offer alternative views except by the way he re-tells it. It's Holden's thoughts completely uncensored by anyone other than Holden himself.
And because of that, the rather poor vocabulary and repetition of phrases feel genuine rather than a mark of shoddy writing, which it would otherwise have felt like, because he really is SUCH a teenager.

Now, the default mode of a teenager is to be confused, at odds with society and a bit askew, but Holden really does take the cake. He is almost completely unsympathetic as a character, is completely wrong about pretty much everything he encounters, seems to have far more affectations than any of the phonies he encounters and is also rather paranoid. And the fact that we can read that out of an account given by the book's storyteller, while he simultaneously is obviously unaware of the fact that he's doing it makes the book enjoyable to me. Most likely because resentful young man is quite common on certain parts of the internet, and they're usually self-aggrandizing, so reading a book that in my mind rather deftly eviscerates such a person is rather rewarding. It might just be that I'm a very small person. And to balance that I would like to point out that I don't think the authour harbours any ill will towards Holden, and the book does end with him being caught before he leaps off the cliff he so headlessly rushes towards.

Another thing that comes to mind is that I can imagine that this is pretty much the perfect book for junior high or high school, considering it gives so many opportunities to analyse a person and his thought patterns and his relationship to other youths, adults, and society at large, opening up for debates on the book. That still doesn't get past the hurdle of making students 1) read and 2) opening their mouth in class, but maybe I'm a bit pessimistic.

So, in summary, it's a decent book, which has probably gotten way too much attention for the wrong things. It's not the book I would put in my coat pocket if I decided to do something extravagant, that's for sure.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray features a "protagonist" who is an amoral monster and who lacks the tiniest sliver of empathy, perhaps only topped by the Loki character of the story, who may not do as much outright harm, but sets the decadent progress of Mr. Gray in motion, knowing full well what he has wrought. The characters are steeped in the typical misogyny of the era, mostly discarding the female characters as background noise, safe in their little castles of privilege.

Naturally, I'm completely in love with Dorian Gray and the mood of the book. Who cares if the character is despicable, as long as it's done with some charm!
I don't know what separates Dorian Gray, self-indulgent savant extraordinaire, from some other self-indulgent characters I did not have such a positive reaction to. Probably it's a case of judging the author of the piece. Oscar Wilde lets his character run free, destroying lives willy-nilly without much care, without getting his just deserts from society as given in the story, but the author provides an obvious and clear moral message in the text. Now, I read in the foreword that Wilde had been criticized for writing a book that "lacked morals", and he thus added the ending of it. This strikes me as very strange, as the tale up until the final six chapters is full of morals, and I must say that anyone criticizing it for not being moral enough is not really someone I would trust as a moral individual. The six chapters added provides some good writing, to be sure, but it's pretty clear that it's there to provide the 19th century version of a Comics Code ending. Or perhaps it is merely that Oscar Wilde showed what really counted in those circles, and that it is the appearance of a man that is the real value of a person.

Now, the actual book is a story about how Dorian Gray, a beautiful young gentleman
who is preyed upon by London's upper class homosexual men, that is, all of them who is seduced into worshipping aesthetics by what I call the Loki character (I'm pretty sure that people usually call this a Mephistopheles character, but I've never read Faust) of the story, Lord Henry, who gleefully leads the young man astray, feeds his egotism and promotes the value that it is only the aesthetic qualities of people's lives that gives them value. The hitch, if anyone was unaware (which I doubt anyone who reads this is), is that the virtuous character of the tale, the painter Basil, created a perfect, glorious portrait of Dorian, where all his young virility and beauty shines through, and when seeing it, Dorian makes the fervent wish that he should ever remain so, and the lot of aging instead falls on the portrait. This, naturally, happens, and it is the portrait that gets to carry all the weight of Dorian's physical aging and moral corruption.
Dorian thus goes through society, leaving wrecked men and women in his wake, but always maintaing the perfect appearance. He is observed with amused eyes by the devilish Lord Henry, and with a small part of wide-eyed horror by the moral watchman, Basil.
In society, none who lie eyes on him can imagine him being a bad person, so he retains his social standing no matter what corrupt deeds he commits, because he presents such a beautiful front, while the portrait grows ever darker and meaner.

Of course, I suppose the story is thus quite open for criticism. After all, this clearly postulates the existence of a soul and of objective moral standards, something I'm opposed to. On the other hand, one could see it as Basil, having put all the glorious ideals he imagines in Dorian in the painting is the one who has ensouled it, and it is thus his moral standards that judges and smears the portrait based on Dorian's actions, so it is possible to rationalize that part away. It's not really necessary, though. It is written at the turn of the century, after all, and I can find such a perspective rather quaint. Since I find great parts of the book and the characterizations quaint, what's one more? The entire late 18th-century London society is, after all, quite the vision of people blind to their privileges and failings seated on top of a corrupt empire (and indeed, Oscar Wilde was a pretty damn good example of a frivolous fop himself). The book itself is rather misogynist in the treatment of women, also, but since it's all seen rather through a lens of the cheerful selective perception of the era, I can sort of live with it. The proclamations of essential characteristics of different groups of people comes from individuals who aren't really authorities on the topic, in my mind.

As I mentioned above, I wondered if the novel was not criticized so much at the time because it strikes so close to home. Society is always open to a privileged person who presents himself correctly, and the willful blindness to the failings of a charming or "correct" fellow is rather endemic in all associations of humans. And indeed, Dorian Gray is hardly the worst example in this book, as the existence of the portrait in his attic would provide an excellent excuse for a society wanting to say "well, he was only accepted by virtue of devilish trickery." The existence of Lord Henry, of course, is not so easily explained away. He spurs on all the activities that are regarded as moral failings, and yet he is, by virtue of behaving "correctly" in good company, quite accepted.

So we can attempt to see it as but a trifle of little relevance to the world: Dorian Gray, the deviant monster, goes to his death, weighed down so heavily by the just moral standards we uphold, and just think of the horrible effect of drugs, and so on, but the good principles of society were upheld, the monster had nothing to do with us. But I would claim that the author, with a lot of charm and wit, manages to put his finger on a lot of the moral failings of both individuals and, more importantly, that of a privileged society.

In the preface, Oscar Wilde writes several epigrams about the nature of art. They are quite brilliant, and can certainly be used to criticize this review. Most importantly, we must always remember this:
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors

I sort of agree with this (it is through ourselves we know life, so mirroring the spectator is to mirror life, though not in the sense of objective truth), and I would say that my criticism of a certain other book I reviewed is that it felt too much of an attempt to make the art mirror the author. A book, read un-ironically (I look forward to reading Atlas Shrugged), that makes the reader, when looking into the mirror of the book, look too much like the author, is an abominable thing.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

by Milan Kundera

This is, not to use too strong a language, the most repulsive book I’ve read to the end. Well-written, certainly, and there are books I’ve stopped reading in the middle. But that may well be because reading someone’s musings is always interesting, while a book that focuses solely on the story just has the strength of the characters and the story to go by.

The characters of this book are consistently horrible people. All of them manage to be misogynist and objectifying, and it can hardly be called a saving grace that I don’t know if the men fare much better in the objectification category. The male main character, Tomas, is that so typical a male character who can’t handle relationships, and has sexuality as purely a means to objectify the world around them. Someone you have sex with, in his mind, is someone who is “conquered,” and you can move on to the next one. In the beginning of the novel, we are given a description of how he orders his sex-life to make sure no relationship can spring from it. The sex-life he has seems thus rendered a sad and pointless thing. The idea that sex is a joyous and rewarding experience seems impossible from this description. Tomas, in regards to sex, follows the pattern of how men tritely get described quite often: that they are true machinae animatae. When it comes to sex, man is but an animated machine, an automaton, it is done only because that is what men do. Now, in the novel, Tomas does find a woman that he has a long, often excruciating relationship with. Considering his need to be free and unaccountable on the emotional field, it is not that surprising that the person he finds is someone he sees as a child. The relationship starts by way of metaphor, and the notion of the relationship as an association of equals is laughable. Tereza may be, at day’s end, what motivates his decisions the most, but it is not her as a person, but merely the image he has of her and his love for her. Now, we all create images of one another that we superimpose on their actual existence, but Tomas in great part has women as the objects of his meaningless sexual acting out, and that women are something apart from in relation to his sexual interest or love is quite summarily glossed over. In fact, I would say that it is telling that the closest to somewhat acceptable is at the end of the book, when the characters are older and de-sexualized.

Now, the two main female characters are fascinating misogynists. Tereza loathes other women and have little to do with them except as adversaries (most little-seen) or as the oppressive existence of the mother she left behind. The bodies of “woman” and its functions are vulgar and the common experiences of women are pointless and banal. It is interesting then, that the girl who flees from her mother’s body into her own soul and the world of literature, only has value through her body. Only Tomas matters; Tereza only matters insofar her body can keep Tomas away from other women. To influence a machinatae animatae in such a way is of course hopeless, and her frustrations over the fact are displayed in vivid dream-scenes.
These dream-scenes are fascinating and touching, and the interpretation of them could possibly have lead me to wholly enjoying the book. After all, to read tragic stories is not necessarily something horrible. It could have been something to argue over, what was wrong in the relationship, what could have changed, what does it say about people, and does it say something true? The author of the book, however, deprives us of any such musings, by inserting himself into the story, as the true deus ex machina, not as a plot point that springs from nowhere, but more as the dogma of monotheistic religion. He sets himself as the God that is the supreme moral arbiter of people’s lives. He presents the story and the internal life of the characters, and then presents the interpretation of the events. These musings can certainly be interesting, and written by themselves they would not present a problem. Something that is written is there to be argued against, after all, but I feel it’s used in an insidious way when done in novels. The author voice is objective, the impassive third party, and the reader is basically left with two options: either disagree, and have to deal with an authoritative voice when criticizing the book. The “right” interpretation is already there written black on white, after all; or we can agree, and we can sit and nod in a profoundly masturbatory fashion, satisfied with the affirmation of our beliefs.
This is not made better by the fact that the author voice in this particular novel uses a way of arguing that I find dishonest in the best of situations. Like either/or:
Either this is the one true description of humanity and society and nothing can nay-say it, or it’s a pile of tripe laden with false dichotomies that contribute nothing at all to the discussion.
I’m not so much a fan of false dichotomies, and it is in that form Kundera often sets up his arguments. Another method is to categorize the world and the people in it by type. A valid approach scientifically, no doubt, with all the exceptions and qualifications that should appear in any honest scholarly work. Not so much in a novel.
Not that the author’s musings are always completely deplorable, not by any means. Oftentimes they are funny and insightful. Considering my review leading up to this point, it’s those musings which do not touch on sexuality and/or relationships and how the sexes behave.

So it is in this light that a fascinating part of the book, the dreams of Tereza, becomes so frustrating. I have an interpretation of these dreams, but they are rendered moot, as the mystery of the dreams has already been explained in regards to how they affect Tereza’s life by the author.

Sabina, the other female main character, hates the banality of domesticity, the growth of kitsch and disappearance of beauty in the world. Sabina is probably the most likable character. This is mostly because after being the mistress of Tomas, she finds another lover, who would not use his “strength” to be humiliating or forceful towards her. This, naturally, makes her reject him, and after that she does not have any more sexual or romantic engagements, which thankfully freed me from having to read Kundera Explains How Men and Women Are in her parts, which leaves the field free for quite interesting musings on kitsch.

Now, that I find the musings on kitsch tolerable, even though I don’t exactly agree with them, might be a sign, and certainly will be, to some people who know me, that my main problem is that my problem is just that I disagree with the way Kundera writes gender relations. Since that is most of the book, I can not deny it. Is it, as I’ve suggested, dishonestly written? Maybe I wouldn’t have such objections unless it was a topic hashed over again and again. However, since it is a topic with strong implications for pretty much all of society, I’d say it’s worth taking a step back and take a long hard look at what the author considers categorical truth.
This is made especially important by the fact that he seems to be completely blind to what I find a quite strong theme of the book: the complete objectification of women. Nowhere is this made clearer than in part five. In chapter eleven, Tomas makes a formula for a certain woman’s uniqueness, expressed by the way they made love. The list is “1) clumsiness with ardour, 2) the frightened face of one who has lost her equilibrium and is falling, and 3) legs raised in the air like the arms of a soldier surrendering to a pointed gun.” Yes, that is the formula for what makes a woman unique, according to Tomas. In the beginning of chapter twelve, it states that “his memory recorded only the steep and narrow path of sexual conquest.” On the very next page, the author feels compelled to make the comment, so that we don’t misunderstand the proceedings, “I do not wish to imply that […] he looked upon her as a sex object.”
Thanks for that clarification, dear author, but I don’t think you’ll like what it implies about you. At least we’re helpfully told that he appreciates her personality, but I must admit to seeing that as being of somewhat lesser importance, when it comes to the objectification factor, than explicitly stating that it was only the path to conquest that matters, in his automaton-like sexual conquering of women. And really, just because you’re a gentleman doesn’t mean you’re not an objectifying ass. In fact, I’d say it’s likelier.

The main problem that reoccurs again and again in this book, in my opinion is that Kundera hitches his ride to the concept of dichotomy, mainly through the concepts of strong-weak and male-female, and that he then proceeds to do what is in my mind a complete misread of the characters that are there to illustrate his point, by obsessively fitting them into these categories and the attributes he takes for granted for them.

I do not enjoy making too many assumptions about authors and motivations, but it seems that he sets out to destroy the kitsch of romance, relationships and what motivates people through their lives. But in today’s world where we have the slacker comedies, the death of ideology, “Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars” and the misogyny and misandry of the past is constantly recreated in new and inventive ways, I can come to only one conclusion: The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a supreme representative of kitsch, and I can only hope it was on purpose.
But I sort of doubt it.