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Aug. 13th, 2006 @ 07:00 pm to hell and back again
Current Mood: humbled
Current Music: Wumpscut - Thorns (Reprised)
So. I finally finished John Haskell's American Purgatorio. I hope I never have to engage this man in the prose equivalent of a rap battle, because I could be wiser than Ghandi and smoother than Shakespeare and I'd still get served.

Maybe I like it because it speaks to me. Maybe I like it because, like my life up to this point, it is a meandering, confused journey that begins in New Jersey and ends in California, heavy with loneliness and nostalgia and the illusion of meaningfulness. But even if none of that was true, I would still be moved by its quiet, desperate truths. This book condenses a lifetime's worth of wisdom in two hundred pages.

It's about a man in his early thirties who comes out of a convenience store to discover that his wife and his station wagon are gone. As the first-person protagonist, he tells the story like a therapy patient, in shock, retelling his experiences on the couch. He's a very analytical man, very self-absorbed--though there are other characters in the story, you never get a sense that anyone is real to him except himself. He has the artist's curse of discovering reams of personal meaning in the mundane. And so, compelled by an arbitrary sign, he embarks on a quest across the United States to find her, and his missing car, and the life he had with her. Thus begins a road novel, as the cliche goes, like no other.

The story, though itself incredibly unpretentious, is told in a very pretentious format, modelled after Dante's Purgatorio, with seven sections, each divided into seven short chapters. Each section is named after one of the seven deadly sins, and explores that sin in a seemingly tangential but deeply profound way. Though this is a very rigid format, and Haskell does struggle with making the story fit (especially near the end), the integration of each section-theme into the story is very natural and rarely feels forced. Haskell has a gift for telling with words things that can't normally be told with words, like the nature of the way people see their cars as an extension of themselves, or the inexplicable barrier between lust and desire, and this, combined with believably conversational language and an extremely mundane plot, gives American Purgatorio a simple earthiness that prevents it from becoming the kind of highbrow literary trash only enjoyable by English majors. (No offense, English majors.) It's accessible enough for high school, yet deep and complex enough to impress a professor. The closest analogue I can think of is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though I'm familiar with both and I think this book blows Sunshine out of the water.

Sprinkled through the story are short, love-letterlike second-person sections addressed to the protagonist's wife. Though not flamboyantly emotional, as most writing of this ilk tends to be--and there are moments when it could get away with being flamboyantly emotional, if Haskell had wanted to, because they are so well earned--there's something heartbreakingly romantic about each and every one. Though the content of these sections is usually mundane, there's an intimate, consummate, painfully honest power to them that fucks with your head and brutally forces you, as if by gunpoint, to examine your own relationships. Haskell has done what generations of country singers and pop stars have failed in doing: he has nailed love, on the noggin, to a T; no matter how you hackney it, he's got it. And not just true love, or raw passion, or empty obsession, but every kind in between.

Interestingly, although the book is based on a very Catholic concept (and the names of the sins are written, with distasteful pomposity, in Latin), there are few other religious overtones. Haskell seems to imply that hell is America itself, which I find a little troubling.

No coherent narrative, exactly one character, boring plot, so-so concept--and yet this book still manages to be powerful and engaging. Take that, high school English teachers.

It took me a month to get through the first hundred pages and two afternoons to read the last hundred.
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Aug. 13th, 2006 @ 10:12 pm ✈❚❚
Current Mood: annoyed
Current Music: one violin chord being played over and over
Tags: ,
My cousin and her housemate just took me to see World Trade Center.

It wasn't very good.

Listen to Christine's Lullaby instead. Story here.
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