So. It's time once again for my embarrassingly short list-of-books-I-read-this year. I'm still a hell of a long way from "read your height in books," but I did better than last year, anyway. (And as usual, I'm not including stories and plays from collections -- just whole novels.)
Here, then, are the books, complete with commentary of great prolixity and spoileriness.
Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
I really enjoyed this book; it was well written, well researched, vivid and interesting, and the plot, for Hugo, was less than usually ridiculous, less convoluted with improbable Dickensian twists. Yet overall it lacked something—that something that would have made it literature. And because Hugo is too much a man of meanings and ideas and allusions to ever stoop to compose mere fiction, it's hard to know what to do with him here.
The characters had a bit of a recycled feel, though I didn't mind that so much. Déruchette was Cosette, except even more delicate and fluttering. Caudray was a kind of hybrid: the looks of Enjolras, the passion of Marius, the philosophical demeanor of Combeferre, and the saintliness of Charles François Bienvenu Myriel—if you can imagine. And Gilliatt was a young, and slightly oblivious, Valjean.
Lethierry was new, at least: ambitious, enterprising, careless of public opinion and popular superstition, and even religion—as skeptical and rude as Grantaire, as headstrong as Bahorel or Courfeyrac, yet as harmless and well-intentioned as Valjean. I liked Lethierry. And Clubin, although a rather implausible villain, was original and surprising.
I liked Gilliatt too, but as with Valjean, I find myself liking and respecting him without being much interested in him. Maybe it's the fault of the superabundance of pages devoted to both of them, so that there seems nothing left to be said. Maybe it's the infallibility of their natures, eternally self-sacrificing, godly though irreligious, inculpable in every action, physically and emotionally unconquerable except by one fatal blow: the loss of their Cosettes. They really do have everything in common—both besting adversity by a kind of native genius, surprising physical ability, and much perseverance. Valjean carrying the stigma of his past, a crime and twenty years punishment; Gilliatt carrying the stigma of his mysterious parentage, the bedeviled home in which he was raised, and his purported sorcery.
There is also something of Quasimodo in Gilliatt, though—at least in relation to the girl. He was not a monster, but evidently he appeared one to her, brutish with his big rough hands, his tanned and windburned features. The birdlike girl flits between their fingers, Quasimodo, Valjean, Gilliatt, and they all let her go.
Ah, Hugo, you charming redundant man.
Still, there was just something a bit too saintly about Gilliatt, something too self-abnegating and divine. Quasimodo was saintly in some ways, but he was also capable of violence and murder. Valjean, meanwhile, was self-denying almost to the point of gluttony; he was not so much a saint as a man desperate and half mad with guilt, struggling at every moment to make restitution for ancient crimes, again and again. Gilliatt, though, is simply an absurdly good man. Not unbelievable, but simply... uninteresting.
Anyway, it was a good book, and a part of me even wants to read it again. Hugo's scathingly blithe sarcasm on matters of religious persecution, on churchgoing, on superstition, will never cease to amuse me; and the section about Gilliatt on the Douvres, battling the rocks and the sea for a claim on the wrecked ship, rigging pulleys and living on raw shellfish, was epic enough to have belonged to a Les Misérables. The plot and the resolution just didn't quite live up to it.
Incidentally, I read Toilers of the Sea back in January, just after finishing Moby Dick. I had thought, while reading the latter, that Melville strongly reminded me of Hugo—but then reading them back to back, I was able to see how very different they were, after all. Oddly—considering how certain I am of Melville's homosexuality—I can't help thinking that Hugo is rather the more feminine of the two. His style isn't exactly flowery, but it lacks the sort of... Socratic robustness one finds in Melville. If you see what I mean.
In Hugo's humor, there is always a vein of punny wit or slightly haughty satire: a touch of Voltaire, Diderot. Melville is bawdier, rougher, and I'm not sure how to explain it, because line by line, the man is as eloquent as any ever who spoke in the English tongue: "Yonder, by the ever-brimming goblet's rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue. The diver sun—slow dived from noon—, goes down; my soul mounts up! she wearies with her endless climb. Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet is it bright with many a gem; I, the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that I wear that, that dazzlingly confounds."
Melville's lines are eloquent and metered with an almost Shakespearean cadence, and yet there is that underlying power in them, that striking succinctness—that Germanic abruptness, like Hopkins in prose. He's eloquent, but he never wastes your time with frills. He's as trim and streamlined as a ship, spare as a sailor; there is just nothing superfluous about him.
Hugo has more a tendency to get swept up in a topic, and... well, I mean, he's not Dickens, he's not bloody Hawthorne; he keeps mostly to his point. It's just that his point tends to get rather convoluted and detailed, and sprinkled with religion and philosophy and sarcasm and poignancy. It's good; I don't mean anything against Hugo. Heavens know I love Hugo. I just mean that he's different.
Hugo's style is a sweep: Melville's is a thrust. They both love aesthetics as well as utility, but there's something simply irreducible about Melville. He writes in prime numbers. Hugo wedges his primes into formulas, and they're interesting formulas—they sweep. But Melville just... well, it's as he said himself. Moby Dick is a novel that may as well be written in engravers' capitals, front to back. There's this massive centrality to it. Places and characters and philosophies, race and religion, the whole gamut of literary topics—but it always comes back to the whale.
Er. Speaking of which. /digression
Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman
I really thought I had read all the Sandman comics back when I was in high school, but apparently I was wrong! hamsterwoman made a post about this one, and it didn't sound familiar, even though I knew I owned a copy of it. So I went and read it, and lo -- it was all new! How I skipped it before I've no idea, but it was really, really fun to find an entire book of Sandman canon that I'd never read before.
And instead of linking to my previous comments on the book, I'll just repost them, since they're short: I liked Destruction and pitied Despair, and was perpetually entertained by Delirium. I loved Merv. Destiny was as painfully immutable as ever, and remains my second-favorite among the Endless. And Dream, as always, was magnificent -- all the more so for his pettiness and recurring bouts of impatience, aggravation, and outright rudeness. I giggled every time he said, "Stop that." And rather melted every time he tried to apologize, but was a little too proud to quite do it properly. And at the end, with Orpheus... and talking to the blood in the basin... ay.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
You know, I actually kind of liked this book, in spite of its being utterly ridiculous. It reminds me, in almost every way, of Wordsworth -- whom I also somehow sort of like, in spite of his being utterly, tediously ridiculous. There's something just charmingly adolescent about it. And in places it is really pretty damn hilarious -- even if that's not at all what Shelley intended.
Mostly irrelevant comments are here and here.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Not much to say about this one. It was very Neil Gaiman, and for that reason it amused me in a kind of nostalgically familiar way, but there didn't seem to be much point to it. For a children's book, it was fairly dark; but that in itself is not sufficient to recommend it. I guess... I don't like to talk about Neil Gaiman without praising him, because I do adore him, but in justice I can't praise him for Coraline. It was cute in places, creepy in places; it could be likened to any number of myths or fairy tales or other children's stories—but it doesn't surpass them. It doesn't explode them or turn them back round on themselves, or reveal in them some startling new aspect—it's just the same transdimensional children's story, only in Gaiman's voice instead of someone else's.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
I was very surprised by how much I liked this book. It was fast-paced and engaging, so that I never wanted to put it down, and always wanted to pick it back up. Winston was a believable and sympathetic character, flawed in appropriate ways; Julia was also believable, if not at all likeable; I even somehow was drawn to O'Brien, the bastard, all the way up to the end. As for the ideas, some of them were trite—but in the context of the novel they didn't seem so.
The story demanded a great deal of suspended disbelief, however; and part of the trouble seemed to be that the characters were aware of this. Winston himself knew, though he couldn't articulate why, that such a distopia simply could not exist. Who would establish it, and to what purpose? There is no benefit in it for anyone, except the disembodied idea of Big Brother—maybe. Everyone is downtrodden, deprived, distrusted, threatened. Not just the lower classes, but everyone. How could such a system get on?
Are people really more docile when they're deprived? It seems to me that continually appeasing people—never giving them too much, but also never giving them too little—is a better system. It ensures that they depend on you. They may even feel indebted to you. That is the great advantage of the Church: God may commit every crime conceivable, but He is still Providence, for all that. Everything that comes to man comes from Him. What comes from Big Brother? An ounce of chocolate? It's not enough.
Complacency is much more dangerous to man's ambition than deprivation is. Deprive a man, and you give him a reason to rebel: what has he to lose by rebelling? Nothing. And he has everything to gain. But give a man all that he needs, and even enough surplus to keep him entertained—and he will never pick himself up from his sofa to rebel against you. He may even hate you, somehow—but it will only be a lazy, torpid hate; why should he act on it? He has so much to lose, and nothing to gain.
If the Party had been clever enough to have kept its people happy—even with all the same deceptions, the eradication of the past, the manipulation of truths, the destruction of intellectualism—it could perhaps have given its people no freedoms, made them absolute slaves, but kept them happy enough never to care to rebel. (I hear B.F. Skinner writes about just such a distopia—or utopia, perhaps—in Walden Two, of which I can't seem to find a copy.) But as for this system, I can't help agreeing with Winston, irrational and flailing though he may be: "I don't care. Somehow you will fail. Something will defeat you. Life will defeat you."
There are other problems, such as why Winston was left to wander around for seven years before the Party decided to crush him; why he was permitted to fornicate with Julia, to rent the room, to join the supposed Brotherhood. There's the question of why "the book" even exists, why O'Brien wrote it, and why Winston was given it to read, when the whole point was to prevent him from believing a word of it. The amount of doublethink entailed in writing a book about what impossible nonsense doublethink is... it's perfectly inconceivable.
But anyway, I can forgive Orwell all these inconsistencies, because for the life of me I can't think of a better way to have expressed what he wanted to express, and his meanings came through crystal clear. His plot was far from bulletproof—but it was all that was needed to bring up the points he had in mind, about the past being real or unreal, about man as the measure of all things, about the relativity and inconsistency of truth. His success was in depicting a terrible and yet very conceivable world, of synethetics and hypocrisies, of the terror of missteps and the suicidal will to rebel. Emotions captured with dangerous, shocking, and demoralizing realism: the hate whose object can be flipped on a whim; the love that is only an idea, a fact, and not a heartfelt emotion; the betrayal that cannot be undone, and only wishes it had been insincere. The frailty of the human form as the foremost obstacle to ambition, because some little ailment is sufficient to reduce one's thoughts to static. And that terrible juxtaposition of metaphor and literalism, "the place where there is no darkness." God, that. No darkness. I will make you perfect. Yes—very nicely done, indeed.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
A reread, because I had forgotten most of it. I've loved this book both times I've read it, and yet somehow it is extremely unmemorable. I remember the ideas, but not the actual story, the characters, the dialogue. There's something somehow blurred about it, so that I feel less as if I had read a story, and more as if a weight of philosophical questions had simply... descended on me.
Yeah, so. For even more incoherent and meandering comments, there's a post here.
I must say, I'm still somewhat baffled by the ending. The only thing I can make of it is that maybe Dick was implying that Japan and Germany really won the war—just as, in the book, the man in the high castle is unwittingly implying that Japan and Germany really lost the war. I'm far from sure about this, however.
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
Comments in this post. I'm still ambivalent, because the book was so different from the movie that I almost can't compare them... and yet so like the movie that I can't not compare them. And both are wonderful, sometimes for the same and sometimes for different reasons -- each one succeeds in a different way, and each one is, in some other ways, just a little inferior to the other. Mainly, I just wish the art and, especially, the coloring had been better in the book. That would have made a great deal of difference, I think.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
I said when I finished reading it that maybe someday I would have the energy to write a gigantic post about my reaction to Atlas Shrugged. I guess this will have to be that post.
I have never been so torn about a work of fiction as I was while reading this one. There were moments when I had the utmost respect for Rand, for the bold, unflinching integrity of her moral code, the unassailable Darwinian rightness of it—and other times when I very nearly flung the book across the room in disgust with her, and could not imagine forgiving her for her utter callous arrogance, her willful wrongness. From one page to another, I adored her or I hated her. It was certainly an odd experience.
The trouble, I see now, is that her position is not one that can be espoused only halfway—any more than its alternative can be espoused only halfway. Either you believe that justice is right, and that men should be paid what they earn, no more and no less, and credited where it is their due, and never subjugated by guilt or fear—or else you believe that mercy is right, and that men should be treated charitably in spite of their failings and regardless of their successes... and that the great have a duty to provide for the small, because we are all human, and all in this together.
And the more I think about it, the more I find myself on Rand's side. I will never go as far as she does, to call charity a plague borne of guilt, or denounce those who would hold up mercy as a virtue. But I do feel, like Rand and like Nietzsche, that a people which fosters the weak will grow weaker, and fall into decline, while a people which desires to evolve and rise to some higher plane—must let those who fail, fail, and give the future over to those who succeed.
The point Rand makes is not that you should never help another man, or never forgive him—but that you should never help him unless he is also willing to help himself, and never forgive him unless he is ready to repair his mistakes. That to need is not the same as to deserve. And that to be happy does not put you in debt to the man who is miserable, or demand your guilt.
In all this, I am with her. It would have been a bit more convincing, I thought, if she had invented a more believable cast of characters, rather than this intellectual, industrial elite made up of dashing, suave, handsome, slender, powerful men with intransigent moral codes and inflexible prides, with unbending courage and boundless capacities for love and joy... if she had not tried literally to write a breed of Übermenschen, of gods. Not that man shouldn't strive for perfection, and of course in order to do so he must identify his ideal, and rise for it; and even if he doesn't make it to the peak, as Rand says, he will at least die with the rays of its glory breaking over him, having risen up. And maybe that's the whole point.
Taken as an allegory, a philosophical abstract, where John Galt and all the rest are meant to represent the ideal—not as men who actually exist, but as men who should exist, whom we should strive to bring into existence by becoming—if that was the point, then yes: I am with her in that. For a while I was annoyed with Rand for having spoken of the ideal as a man who would feel no fear, and no pain—as though we would still be human if we ever rose up that high, and transcended fear and pain. But I think now that what she meant was this: that a man should be willing to suffer for the things he believes in, and that so long as his pain is chosen, not self-destructively but for some honest purpose—so long as his pain contains in it the joy of its own worthiness, of being not a sacrifice but a payment for something greater—then it is not pain. Or at least, it is a higher kind of pain, one we can respect, and do not need to pity.
Another of Rand's points, and one with which I agree wholeheartedly, is that our greatest virtue, as a species, is our capacity for thought: that to think is the fundamental predicate of man. To act is, of course, necessary; but before a man acts he must think, and if he refuses to think, if thinking is too hard for him, then he has renounced his humanity. And whatever may be our innate capacities, it is our duty as men—as humans—to climb for the highest point we can reach, and become the full potential of what we could have been. To make ourselves worthy of the day when we would have met him, John Galt, the idea, the ideal, the living god, and shaken his hand—even though we will never meet him.
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu
I don't think I can actually review the Tao Te Ching. That seems a bit petty. But I will say that it is beautiful and simple and profound, and probably untranslatable, each line as compact and faceted as a haiku. I read two different translations side by side, and at times they seemed to say entirely different things; and I've seen that there are yet other translations with other meanings, extracted from the same text. It reminded me very strongly of some books on Native American shamanism that I've read, but more concise. I'm not quite passive enough to be a Taoist myself—but I very much respect the philosophy.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
I kind of have no idea what happened in this book. Our title character is strange, all right—sometimes he comes off almost as an imbecile, or at least autistic or something. He clearly suffers some emotional deficit, yet at his most lucid, he has some fascinating revelations. I guess he reminds me more of Vladimir and Estragon than of anyone else, dimly perceiving and yet very much lost. The Stranger is obviously a postmodern work, and I suppose the whole nihilistic despair of postmodernism is perhaps what's meant by it, but... I really can't tell. If anybody has any thoughts, I'd be curious to hear them.
Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
I probably would have been more impressed with the book if I hadn't already seen the movie, which was good enough that it sort of obviated the need for the book. But the book was good. It was less sensational than the movie, which was for the best; but it had a lot fewer stories, which is one place where I think the movie improved upon it, since after all the stories are the point. The book seemed to take place much more in the present, and the stories were simply little anecdotes to fill the space between the scenes progressing the plot. The movie was much more successful in conveying that the point was not how it ends, but what the story is, along the way.
On the whole, though, I'd say that the book and the movie both do one another justice quite well, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend either or both of them to anyone, without much discrimination between the two. The impact of the novel is a little more somber, and a little more autobiographical; the impact of the movie is a little blurred by its sensationalism and absurdity... but either way, the message is there. And a lovely message it is, too.
All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder by Frank Miller
(In addition to lots of other Batman graphic novels, which are reviewed here.)
This, predictably, reminded me very much of Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Not in substance, exactly, but in the impression it left on me. I like Miller's stories, but I'm not sure I accept them. He writes a Batman, a believable Batman—perhaps the most believable Batman—yet somehow the fellow just doesn't feel like the Batman.
There are things about Miller's Batman that are improvements on most of the other incarnations. For one thing, the guy is seriously fucking crazy. Damn smart, absolutely methodical, dangerously sharp... but also seriously fucking crazy. It's hard to explain how I mean. He's not socially inept: in the role of Bruce Wayne he puts on a very convincing façade of social normalcy. He may not be normal, but he understands it well enough to imitate it. It's something else.
I mean, here is a man who is utterly solitary, who spends every waking moment wearing one mask or another, pretending to be something he isn't, in the name of a crusade that's the explosion of personal vendetta into a full-blown one-man war on crime. Every moment that he's not playing the role of Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy—and that with unparalleled talent—he's training, exercising, scrutinizing news articles, analyzing evidence, building, inventing, planning. A man like that shouldn't be able to afford to be insane. He's obsessive, overzealous, but also ambitious, intelligent, capable, driven. Meticulous. Yes—even if he does spend his nights dressing up as a bat, finding criminals, and beating them to a bloody, insensible pulp.
Even that isn't quite mad. Very, very illegal, certainly questionable in moral terms—but still it only makes him a vigilante. He's taken the law into his own hands, and dispenses his own justice as he pleases, according to his own rules. A man like that could be a psychopath. Or he could be a revolutionary. When a government cannot police itself, a man will rise to power, impose a law, and dispense his own justice. The difference is that usually, such a man will have a following, a host of chiefs and soldiers and so forth, and his aim will be to govern. Batman is not a political figure. He's more an avenging angel, not writing the laws but simply enforcing them. Personally, and with lots of violence.
And yet it's not this that's so insane, either. It's not good, but it's not insane. Yet there is something very decidedly insane about Miller's Batman.
It's not even the fact that he dresses up as a bat. When you consider—well, hell, when you consider fashion in general, it's only too easy to make a case for the insanity of the entire human species. The immense starched ruffs, the powdered wigs, the voluminous dresses, the bust-enhancing brassieres, and all the strange and myriad piercings and tattoos—what about all that isn't insane? The costumes of the elite are historically eccentric. And egad, how much less sane is the bright target-board color of the Redcoats during the war, functionally speaking, than the masked vigilante stalking dark streets in a sweep of black cloak? He's chosen an emblem, the bat, a primitive symbol to inspire terror, and represent himself as something dark and silent and looming and sudden. Certainly it appears eccentric, but it's really rather genius. A man playing off archetypes, turning men's natural fears to his advantage. That part isn't crazy at all.
But, though I can't pinpoint it, there is still something very wrong with him. And what I'm trying to get around to saying is that Frank Miller does an excellent job of portraying just how freakishly different he is, and has to be, in order to be Batman. He's not incapable of love—but he thinks he is. He has no time for that sort of consideration. He's a crusader, and his time is taken up entirely with calculation and destruction. He is not and cannot be a good man. He is in constant surveillance of and contact with the most despicable examples of humankind, and his business is thrashing and sometimes intentionally torturing them. He does it for the greater good, and the rules he has set down for himself are to insure that he never becomes the abyss into which he is gazing. Not quite. But he is walking on the edge. He was made for dispensing justice—he's a hunter and a punisher. He's not an evil man. But he is not a good man.
Miller seems to be almost the only author to have recognized just how essential this point is to the character of Batman. Everyone else—and I probably would do the same thing myself, even—writes him as a tormented hero who is trying his best to do what's right, and who recognizes the necessity of kicking some ass in the meantime. It's a pretty fantasy, but it just doesn't fly. The guy is dangerous. His world is not the same as our world: his perception is skewed and the thing he has made himself, the persona with which he interacts with the world, is violent and frightening. He has a system of ideals, and perhaps he has considered them with philosophical rigor, or perhaps he has adopted them somewhat arbitrarily because they're the ideals of mankind, universally, and because they appeal to him personally for his own psychologically and emotionally damaged reasons. But either way, the ideals are for him a law, a set of rules, and not his essence. His is not Christ's but Satan's role: not to lead the way to salvation, but to find the damned and inflict the proper punishment.
Anyway, this is sort of beside the point of the actual book in question, which is mostly about Robin being a smart-mouthed little punk who's got a heck of a lot of potential, and Batman being horrible on purpose because he thinks it's necessary, and then realizing that he had the wrong idea, pushed too hard too soon. He's a scary, scary Batman, one who laughs while he sets you on fire, and in some places I think Miller completely missed the mark and made him a genuine monster—but overall, what he did is interesting. His Batman is much more stern and strong and solitary than most of the others I've read, theatrical with very calculated intent, and even though he's crazy and probably very lonely, he's also tough enough to bloody well handle it. He's a man who can't afford weaknesses, can't afford friendships, can't afford to take anything for granted; he's a man who holds all his emotions perpetually at bay, because they have no place in his life or his work. They would only get in his way.
He's not the beautiful, tragic, martyred, desperate Batman that one gets in so many other comics, the one who's so easy to fall in love with. He's more like the real thing, not beautiful but scarred and hardened, not tragic, because that would be an indulgence, not desperate but determined and immovable—a man who is a magnificent idea, a magnificent archetype, an image worthy of legend... but whose reality is brutally day-to-day. There's nothing romantic about it. It's not a life you wish you could live. It's an inhuman sort of life.
Miller doesn't talk about any of this, really, but it's what I got from him. His is almost the first Batman I've read or seen who really feels like a man, like something other than the author projecting an idealized figure. I'm still not sure I accept him. But I do appreciate very much what Miller's done.
Watchmen by Alan Moore
I've said most of this before, but here's another go.
I respect Watchmen much more now that I realize how unique it really was, in its time—and also now that I've stepped back enough to survey it as a whole, and not focus so much on the resolution. I still find the resolution just a little embarrassing. The moral ambiguity of Ozymandias' position was lovely, taken by itself—but once you return to the specifics of the psychic-teleporting-exploding-monster, the whole moral dilemma and psychological subtlety get rather lost in the absurdity of the plot. All this time, the whole conspiracy, the Comedian's death, all Rorschach's investigations, have been leading up to this? This? Egad.
Anyway. I've already talked about how much I liked Jon, but I'm going to say it again. He's just so well-meaning and so utterly detached from human concerns, and he ends up looking oblivious or even a bit daft, when really he's just—so absorbed in knowledge, science, nature, space, but human interaction is the one thing he just can't get a grip on. And yet he goes a long way out of his way to try to do right by humanity, and he has compassion, and even something like regret.
He seems to be incapable of doing anything for the wrong reasons, incapable of immorality, not because he's an amoral being, but because he does everything with such total innocence. Not the innocence of stupidity or naïveté, but the innocence of complete understanding. It's amazing that there can be such innocence in omniscience, the same innocence one seems to find in complete vapidity. I am still completely fascinated by his position as an almost omnipotent being who, however, can't really be said to do anything by choice, because he sees the universe turning like clockwork, and the lives of men, too, and knows that nothing can be changed: that all is prescribed, including his own awareness of that prescription... and while he is serene in understanding this, and knows better than to rebel against it... he is still human enough to feel a kind of regret and pity, and indeed the full range of human emotions, at the proper moments. Even while he knows that nothing matters.
I said before that I respected Rorschach, but couldn't like him. The more I think about it, though, the more I find that I do rather like him. It's just that you can't pity him—he wouldn't even stand for that—so respect is almost all you can really give him.
The only moment when one might, conceivably, pity Rorschach is at the very end, when Jon destroys him: when he tears off the mask and one sees that he actually has tears streaming down his face, and he shouts—he shouts, this man who has remained calm and cool throughout every other frightful scenario since he first donned his mask—probably knowing that Jon really will kill him. That no one will know the truth, because he's the only man in the world with the integrity to give it to them and damn the consequences; and nobody wants the truth. His motives are hard to understand; hell, everything about him is hard to understand, and maybe it was just reckless vengeance that made him want to go back and tell the world the truth at the end anyway. But whatever it was, he was ready to die for it. No, not ready to die: it wasn't a possibility: it was a certainty. He insisted on dying rather than backing down. It wasn't vanity. No one but Jon would ever know. And Jon doesn't see the world that way.
Nite Owl was mostly cloying and desperate and embarrassed about himself, which worked well but didn't particularly endear me to him. And as for Laurie... just argh. The worst thing about her wasn't even that she was stupid and vacuous, but that she was presented as though she was actually intelligent and useful anyway—as though this was the best that could be expected of a woman, and we should like her in spite of her irredeemable idiocy, because after all she's female and she can't help it. Agh!
I'm not even a feminist, but for heaven's sake, Moore, if you're going to write an "empowered" female, is it so hard to invent one who doesn't have her own ass and tits on her mind all the time, and doesn't end up with a boyfriend by the time the story is over, or fall in love with anybody, tragically or otherwise, but just... is? A woman who has some higher purpose than sucking a guy's cock or popping out babies or something?
But anyway. As I've said before, the things I really loved were the little revelations that came up along the way: the blot tests as metaphor for the world, symbolic of nothing; Jon's Vonnegut-esque coming-unstuck-in-time, with the somewhat unsubtle watchmaker stuff, even. And I loved the way the pirate comic ran parallel to the rest, and sort of told Ozymandias' whole journey, and, possibly, gave us its ending, which the final chapter doesn't. Damnation after all. Good intentions paving the road to the Black Freighter.
And I'm really looking forward to the movie, even though I suspect I will come away from it headdesking dramatically.
The Golden Compass by Phillip Pulman
Comments are here.
I really do mean to read the other two books; the themes of the first one entirely fascinated me. It's just that the characters didn't. There was nothing terribly wrong with it, and quite a bit about it that was entirely excellent—just not quite excellent enough for me to rush out and spend twenty or thirty dollars on the next two books.
The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Comments are here.
Of the four Sherlock Holmes novels, I'd say this one ranks at third—better than A Study in Scarlet, but no match for the other two. I did intensely enjoy the first half of it, and once I'd finished the second half, I saw that Doyle had not been wasting my time after all. But I still think one oughtn't to spend half a novel wondering if one's time is being wasted, even if the answer is no.
The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
I already failed to comment on this book before, because the only thing really to be said about it is that Márquez is wonderful and penetrating and benignly merciless. After finishing this book, I quickly went out and bought two more books by Márquez, which I've been holding off reading because they're both short, and I don't want to run out of him. The General in His Labyrinth was by no means comparable to One Hundred Years of Solitude—well, for sheer scope, what could be?—but it proved to me that Márquez is an author you can trust, and not one whose success came by a mere fluke. He is very, very good.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Yep. Finally got around to reading Dracula.
I had suspected even before starting the book that Dracula himself would be in it very little, but I hardly guessed just how little. Oh, he was about plenty for the first couple of chapters—but after that, he was entirely absent, except as a shadowy figure or a bat flapping at the window, for around two hundred pages. Only then did they at last start talking about him again... and his presence seemed a little more tangible when they were investigating his mansion, gathering clues from the movers, et cetera. But in fact none of them actually saw him—save Jonathan, momentarily—until his last moment in London, when he came home to find all his coffins closed against him, threw himself out the window, and disappeared again. And so once more there was nothing but rumor all the way to the end of the novel, when, at four hundred pages, they were finally able to pry open his coffin and kill him, instantaneously and somewhat anticlimactically, with him unable to speak or put up any kind of fight.
For that reason, the novel felt a little unbalanced to me. The first long section in Transylvania is very dark, and could almost have been a novella unto itself. It made a nice opening. The next part was all about Lucy, more melancholy and worrisome than frightening. And then the last two hundred pages featured our band of heroes, Jonathan, Mina, Arthur, Quincey, Dr. Seward, and Van Helsing hunting Dracula around London and across Europe, and finally catching up with him at the castle.
Beginning and ending in Transylvania was a good choice, and helped restore the balance some. But we were sorely lacking some sort of resolution on Dracula's side—some speech or something.
Though I suppose this wasn't much a book for speeches. Van Helsing offered a couple, but they felt a bit forced. Once in a while Stoker would dip into a penetrating idea, but on the whole he didn't venture any further into philosophy than he absolutely had to.
Which reminds me: one of the strangest things to me was the way everyone in the novel seemed to use the word "simple" as a compliment of the highest degree. Everyone who was good was described as kind and loving and brave and simple. And I couldn't help thinking, from almost the beginning of the book, that practically everyone in it was a perfect Hufflepuff, the very image of Cedric Diggory, strong and brave and loyal and... simple. Totally void of intellectual ideas. You'd think, since the whole book is written in journal entries, there'd be plenty of opportunity for reflection. But instead everything is fact and action.
Then again, I suppose in the midst of such a crisis, one does put off reflection for some other time, and philosophical questions become superfluous, because there are real questions in front of you, and they need answers. And after all, Seward wasn't so bad. I think it was only after we started viewing the men from Mina's perspective that I began to think of them as big dumb blond brutes, because all they ever seemed to do was sweep Mina in protectively, cry on her, or brandish their fists in rage. They seemed to become more animal as the book wore on.
Which, too, was appropriate, and if I thought Stoker had done it on purpose, I'd actually be very impressed: it would be a rather Camus-esque way of presenting the thing. I mean, by the end, their objective of destroying Dracula had pretty well consumed them all. They were riding as if to war, thinking of nothing but vengeance and triumph, ready to face death; and Van Helsing was off cutting women's heads off, in much horror. There really wasn't any place for philosophers in that setting.
No, all in all, I'll grant Stoker that he did a pretty good job. It's just that I don't care for his kind of heroes. Such heroes are necessary, and not the less right or the less beautiful for their simplicity, for the fact that they've become like brutes themselves—but on the other hand, there's something frightening about them. There's that thoughtless Christian zealotry in them, that crusader-spirit, certain beyond the first thought of doubting that this way is the perfect and only right way. It leads me to associate the vampires with various minority groups, Gypsies or Muslims or Jews perhaps, accused of stealing children or whatever other crimes and blasphemies.
I mean, never mind the drinking of blood: what if the Muslims—or whoever—had come in and were converting the people of London to Islam? Would that not, in Christian eyes, be the same as or worse than turning them into the walking undead? Their souls lost to God, denying the truth of the Savior? Would not their good Christian friends weep as bitterly over this loss as if it were a death, and view them as if they were really no longer living: as if their conversion had actually turned them into demons, or at least signified that demons had stolen into them and turned them with evil promises? And would not good Christian men—as they would undoubtedly call themselves—see fit to destroy whoever was responsible for this evil? The vampires—the Muslims?
There is a parallel there, and not a pretty one. I don't mean to assert that we must accept absolutely everyone and all the strange customs of the world, including the drinking of unwilling victims' blood and the turning of them into demons. I merely point out that, by the end, Dracula had become a crusade in the name of Christ, and not merely a vampire-hunt. Interestingly, Stoker didn't entirely shy from the topic—Van Helsing himself points out that, at the time of the novel, things are being done with electricity which the very men who discovered electricity would have condemned as witchcraft. And those men themselves would have been burned as wizards not long before their times. And so step by step we move forward. Out of the darkness, I suppose.
The thing is, coming only a hundred years ago as it did, Dracula seems like something of a step backwards, since books like Notre-Dame de Paris and even Dostoevsky's Christian works showed a more open-minded and less pedantically orthodox view of religion in decades very much preceding Dracula's publication. If the book had been written a century earlier, it would have seemed to fit; a century before that, I'd have deemed it a perfect marvel of modernity. But in 1897—a book like this, I'm afraid, has no surprising qualities, and is only popular fiction.
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
First of all, Fitzgerald writes just beautifully. All the more wonderful, since this was his first book—he was twenty-three. Twenty-three. "Here, Heraclitus, did you find in fire and shifting things the prophecy you hurled down the dead years..." It is simply stunning.
Otherwise, however, I'm not so sure about this book. It's one of those coming of age novels—one that traces the path of a man from childhood through youth and to maturity, and through all the changes that take place within and around him, until at last he becomes someone. I've read a few of these books before, and have never found them very interesting. The only exception I can think of is Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, because that was all image and idea. And I still never particularly liked Stephen.
I don't know—for me, there's some kind of archetypal thing that characters have when they interact with a plot, that makes them meaningful in a symbolic rather than a literal way, and gives them more a universal significance. I don't want to read a novel like a psychological case-study. And then, in these coming-of-age novels, it's only too obvious what the author believes. Whenever the character learns a lesson, it's clear that the reader is supposed to agree with the lesson, to have learned it already, or to be delighted at being handed this epiphany. It's somehow too direct, too arrogant.
In fact, toward the end of the book, I had actually begun to dislike it. There was something so self-satisfied and self-assured about its tone, something so flippant about its dismissal of other authors and other ideas—and even when it was right, there was still the sheer conceit of it to contend with. It was all so aristocratic, and even when Fitzgerald pretended to reprove his hero's egotism, there seemed to be applause in the reproof.
The hero—Amory Blaine—decides against writing a book, because he holds authorship as too serious an undertaking to begin without a definite purpose, a definite meaning. There are too many writers, he says, turning out old ideas in new suits, wasting shelf-space with cheap stories that won't outlive the decade. And Fitzgerald? What did he say in this book? Many things, to be sure, that are true—but I doubt any of them were things that had not been said before. Then what was his point? To illustrate the limbo of his generation? But that limbo is not unfamiliar to us, even now.
He rails about how the true geniuses, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, get sugar-coated and fed to the masses through popular literature. And by "popular literature," he means George Bernard Shaw. But what exactly is the difference between Shaw talking about Nietzsche, and Fitzgerald talking about Shaw talking about Nietzsche?—and Fitzgerald talking about Wilde and Wells and Butler and Voltaire and Rousseau and bloody everyone else. Half the damn book he spent talking about how his characters felt about literature. As if I cared how his characters felt about literature! I'm reading, aren't I? Don't you think I have my own opinions about literature?
And in the end, when Amory is realizing himself, he discovers—in a rather Nietzschean moment—that he cannot be both great and good. The question he fails to ask, however, is: can he be great? He is capable of courage and sacrifice as an expression of himself, but lacks any real human sympathy. It is an interesting and perfectly plausible dilemma, a familiar one, perhaps even universal—but it does not render him a god.
He is an egotist, a self-proclaimed egotist. And I think the difference is right there. A god does not need to be an egotist. His greatness is such that what in another man would be egotism in him manifests as greatness. He does not reprove himself; he does not hesitate. Raskolnikov is not Napoleon, because Napoleon—would know.
Anyway. Ultimately, I think Fitzgerald's idea was to imitate the styles of various authors, one by one, in order according to his respect for them, beginning with authors he deemed merely clever, such as Wilde and Shaw, then moving up to authors who seemed to him more mature, like Wells and Butler, momentarily Joyce, Tolstoy in a random socialist speech, and culminating finally with a handful of Nietzschean revelations.
If I'm right, then what he did was certainly interesting, and a ponderous undertaking. But I can't say it was an entirely successful one. His Joyce hardly came off at all; his Nietzsche was dubious. His Wilde was rather dry. And I'm not even sure where Wells was, though he must have been in there somewhere. I don't know—it's been ages since I've read The Great Gatsby, and I probably should read it again now, to remind myself that I do like Fitzgerald. Not that I didn't enjoy this book, since mostly I did; but the pretension of it was really almost too much.
War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
This book had a promising opening, but after the first few chapters I began to lose faith. It wasn't until the last couple of chapters that Wells surprised me by developing some themes and redeeming the whole book. In the end, it was actually a rather uncharacteristically optimistic story, for Wells. Man's birthright to the planet, purchased at the price of so many billions of lives forfeited over time to natural selection. No death, says Wells, was ever in vain, for in life or in death we all contribute to that whole which is Man. Not bad, indeed.
It amuses me, in retrospect, how Darwinian the book was, almost from the first. It wasn't until near the end that he brought up natural selection as such, but all along he kept contrasting the men who deserved to live—the determined, the intelligent, the bold, the industrious—with those who merely slowed up and weighted down the rest by their cowardice, their hesitation, their laziness. And though the artilleryman turned out to be a flake, his speech seemed much in line with Wells' idea: that those who die in their weakness, their failure, should die, and should even be willing to die, because for them to die is a service to humanity as a whole, strengthening it, attenuating its virtues. Another very Nietzschean sentiment.
I was also much fascinated by Wells' discussion of that fleeting emotion which attended the realization of humanity's having, as a race, been overthrown. He called it a feeling outside the normal range of man, but I think in this he was mistaken. After all, how many groups of men have in the past been overthrown just as callously, by other men? Wells himself pointed out how Tasmania was taken, and whole races wiped out of existence. Undoubtedly the tribe which, in its own context, is the paragon of civilization, reaching almost to the height of the gods, is as appalled as Wells' character to find itself routed suddenly by some strange, overdressed, ferociously armed, merciless, and tyrannical new race which has set its mind to conquest. Columbus was an alien to America, and he came with his ships and his war machines. That is to say nothing of the slave trade, or the Holocaust, or the biblical suppression of the Jews by Egypt—or of the Canaanites by the Jews. At what era have men not been reduced suddenly and senselessly to the rank of mere beasts? It has been going on for as long as man has been man.
Wells was careful to give us little room for sympathizing with the aliens, but he did return to draw the parallel again and again between men and beasts, and to talk about how we should learn humility, and be less arrogant in our superiority over other creatures. How it can have failed to occur to him to say over other men, I don't know—maybe he was simply aiming for more subtlety than to state his meaning outright. He made it hard to sympathize with the aliens, asserting that their evolution had taken them beyond the possibility of emotion or sentiment, until reason was all they knew... and I think in this case, his warning was for us not to become those aliens. If so, however, his warning was probably several millennia early. I would not say we are getting there just yet.
Aaaand there you have it. I may not read much, but I sure do make long posts about it...