Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A literary basis for Trick-or-Treating

Tonight I’ll be making the rounds with my 2nd grade Harry Potter, kindergarten Cinderella and pre-school spiderman, reminding them to say thank you as the neighbors dump candy in their imitation jackolantern buckets. (The mrs and I will be going as Waldo and Wenda, thanks for asking.)

Like most people my age, I’ve got plenty of fond memories of trick-or-treating as a kid, but it’s actually a tradition that had only just taken off when my parents were young. In fact, it didn’t really  catch fire until the 1950s. But even though the internet tells me trick-or-treating probably stems from several quasi-religious, Old World customs, I was struck by a literary reference I happened upon the other day, which pointed to a more likely and immediate source: the Thanksgiving morning ‘ragamuffin’ tradition brought to life in Betty Smith's coming-of-age classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn :
“Most children brought up in Brooklyn before the first World War remember Thanksgiving Day there with a peculiar tenderness. It was the day children went around “ragamuffin” or “slamming gates,” wearing costumes topped off by a penny mask.
“Francie chose her mask with great care. She bought a yellow Chinaman one with sleazy rope mandarin mustaches. Neeley bought a chalk-white death head with grinning black teeth. Papa came through at the last minute with a penny tin horn for each, red for Francie, green for Neeley…
“The street was jammed with masked and costumed children making a deafening din with their penny tin horns. Some kids were too poor to buy a penny mask. They had blackened their faces with burnt cork. Other children with more prosperous parents had store costumes: sleazy Indian suits, cowboy suits and cheesecloth Dutch maiden dresses. A few indifferent ones simply draped a dirty sheet over themselves and called it a costume.
“Francie got pushed in with a compact group of children and went the rounds with them. Some storekeepers locked their doors against them but most of them had something for the children. The candy-store man had hoarded all broken bits of candy for weeks and now passed it out in little bags for all who came begging. He had to do this because he lived on the pennies of the youngsters and he didn’t want to be boycotted. The bakery stores obliged by baking up batches of soft doughy cookies which they gave away. Children were the marketers of the neighborhood and they would only patronize those stores that treated them well. The bakery people were aware of this. The green grocer obliged with decaying bananas and half-rotted apples. Some stores which had nothing to gain from the children neither locked them out nor gave them anything save a profane lecture on the evils of begging. These people were rewarded by terrific and repeated bangings on the front door by the children. Hence the term, slamming gates.”
-from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn , by Betty Smith

The theory is that spectacles like the Macy’s parade and football games (not to mention shop-keepers fed up with the low-level extortion of snot-nosed neighborhood kids) sent the trick-or-treaters looking for a new holiday to occupy. Thank goodness they found one.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A hollow literary adaptation

Alright. Regular readers will know that I’m a fan of Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow . What you might not know, and what I myself didn’t know until I watched it last night, was whether I was a fan of Tim Burton’s film adaptation of “Sleepy Hollow.” Turns out I am not.

I mean, it was an alright movie. Johnny Depp was entertaining as Ichabod Crane, of course. And on the Halloween-movie spectrum of spooky vs. slasher it definitely tended toward the former, which is a good thing in my book. But what on earth did it have to do with Irving’s original story? Not a whole heckuvalot.

There were some recognizable character names, not to mention the 18th century Hudson Valley setting…. aaaaand that’s about it. They transformed Ichabod from a skittish country schoolmaster to an indignant New York City constable. Then they invented a complicated cabal of village elders and backstabbing occult characters, and turned the whole thing into a serial-killer murder mystery where the headless horseman isn’t even the villain by the end of the movie.

Is it a passable Halloween diversion? Sure. But if you’re looking for a faithful literary adaptation, I’ll point you instead to the Bing Crosby-narrated Disney classic.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Haiku-ption Contest #11

Mine is below. Throw your own in the comments.
Will an ostrich do?
When she wanted a pony?
Sally’s face says “no.”

Friday, October 26, 2012

From the Pen of E.L. Doctorow

We’ve still got some folks weighing in on “Wakefield” a day or two later (I told you it was a long one,) so I thought I’d share a few of the lines that really struck me as I reread the story. These aren’t necessarily beautiful or flowery masterstrokes of style- I don’t think that’s Doctorow’s M.O. (see last paragraph of this article)- but there’s something about his writing that grabs you by the shoulders and makes you look at things from an unexpected angle, something that leaves you convinced that you’ve seen the person or thing exactly how he meant you to. Reminds me a little of Eugenides in that regard:
“That’s what she did when we argued- she used the last name. I wasn’t Howard, I was Wakefield. It was one of her feminist adaptations of the locker room style that I detested.”
“She still moved like the dancer she had been in college, her feet pointed slightly outward, her head high, her walk more a glide than something taken step by step.”
“From the shadow of the garage, I beheld the back yard, with its Norwegian maples, the tilted white birches, the ancient apple tree whose branches touched the windows of the family room, and for the first time, it seemed, I understood the green glory of this acreage as something indifferent to human life and quite apart from the Victorian manse set upon it.”
“All that was wanting now was Diana’s mother, and by noon she was up from the city in her white Escalade- the widow Babs, who had opposed the marriage and was likely now to say so. Babs was what Diana, God help us, might be thirty years hence- high heeled, ceramicized, liposucted, devaricosed, her golden fall of hair as shiny and hard as peanut brittle.”
“I watched in the big mirror as, snip by snip, I travelled back in time. With each falling hank of hair, more and more of the disastrous lineaments of my previous self emerged, until, big naked ears and all, staring back at me was the missing link to Howard Wakefield.”

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Bradbury Bets His Life

Saw this on Litkicks and BoingBoing. It's a 35 year-old Ray Bradbury, appearing on Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life."

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Short Story Club: "Wakefield" by E.L. Docotorow

Welcome to short story club. It’s good to see you all after so long. Come on in and have a seat. Tucker’s just warming up some pigs-in-a-blanket and Orlando’s on the can. He’ll be out in a minute.

What did everyone think of “Wakefield?” I’ll probably be a little more negative than I typically am, but despite the criticisms that follow I thought it was a pretty compelling read.

The first time I read this story I was infuriated by the ending. I felt like punching Doctorow in the nose. He completely neglected the most interesting part of the story: what the hell would happen when Wakefield walked back through his front door.

But I'll give him credit for keeping me reading. It was a Kafka-esque exploration of an unthinkable "what if" scenario, but he managed to make it plausible. I found that fascinating. But it was the carrot of the ending that kept me going, and when I realized in the last paragraph that there was in fact no carrot... well, I felt used and dirty.

A couple more criticisms:
  • his wife never called his cell-phone?
  • the whole crux of the story was that he was this lucid, intelligent man, but then we're supposed to believe he survived for months on pristine table scraps from neighborhood garbage cans?
  • We're supposed to believe that he did so without being noticed?
  • He didn't freeze his butt off until after Thanksgiving? In a New York suburb? In real life he'd be dead by Halloween.
  • The secretive aid of the mental patients was kind of hard to believe.
  • At one point the mental patients all disappear, then magically reappear to give him a spongebath?
  • And his own wife didn't recognize him after an absence of just 6 months or so? Really? Standing eye-to-eye?

I dunno. I'll call it a great story, and it did give me a lot to think about. I'll even say that the ambiguous ending is okay. But I think his editor failed him on a number of simple continuity errors, and I'm afraid they amount to a pretty tall tale when taken altogether.

But yeah, I actually really liked it. What did you think?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Short Story Club Returns

It’s been far too long since our last John R. Lyman Memorial Short Story Club post, but we’re going to go ahead and rectify that right here. This month’s story is a doozy- you’ve been warned- but I have to admit I was drawn into it completely.

As the autumn weather turns cold and our thoughts turn to the upcoming holidays we’ll be spending with our families, it’s only natural to read a story about a man who  decides, on a whim, to squat secretly in the attic above his own detached garage while his family copes with his supposed disappearance, right? Right.

Here’s the opening of E.L. Doctorow’s short story “Wakefield:”
“People will say that I left my wife and I suppose, as a factual matter, I did, but where was the intentionality? I had no thought of deserting her. It was a series of odd circumstances that put me in the garage attic with all the junk furniture and the raccoon droppings—which is how I began to leave her, all unknowing, of course—whereas I could have walked in the door as I had done every evening after work in the fourteen years and two children of our marriage.”
Read the rest here.   Then come back tomorrow for the discussion.   It’s on.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cause or Effect?

Ernest Hemingway used a shotgun. David Foster Wallace used a noose of some sort. Virginia Woolf filled her overcoat pockets with rocks and walked into a river. Sylvia Plath lay down with her head in the oven and turned on the gas.

According to this wikipedia page, these famous authors  (not to mention 284 other writers) chose to end their lives prematurely through suicide. Why so many? This story in the Atlantic seems to provide some scientific background on the problem:
“When the researchers looked specifically at authors, they found that they are overrepresented among people with schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety syndrome, and substance abuse problems. Authors were also almost twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.”
I’m not sure that statistic surprises anyone who reads it, but I think it reveals more about the virtues of writing than it does about how occupational choices affect our mental health. It’s a classic question of cause and effect: Are writers more likely to suffer from mental health woes because they’ve chosen a particularly painful career path? Or are those who suffer mental health woes more likely to choose an occupation like writing because it helps them process their thoughts, make sense of the world, and even escape from reality from time to time? I tend to think it’s the latter.

At least I hope so... because, ya know,... of this.

Friday, October 19, 2012

First Line Friday: Breaking the Fourth Wall

Whaddya say, shall we break the fourth wall today?

Do what with the which now, you ask? Break the fourth wall- that imaginary barrier between the actors on a stage and the audience in the theater (or for our purposes, between characters in a story and the reader turning pages.) Oftentimes, narrators and characters don’t even acknowledge the reader’s existence. Other times they step right up and introduce themselves. “Call me Ishmael,” says Hermann Melville in Moby Dick.  “In a sense, I am Jacob Horner,” says John Barth in his lead off to The End of the Road

In both cases you’ve got a first-person narrator, so it’s somewhat natural to address the reader directly, or make personal asides. Still, it’s an interesting choice to shake hands with the reader rather than launch into the story or kick off some tension-building plot point. I happen to like it.

And look at the amount of character info you can convey in just one sentence packed with dialect and mannerisms and tone:
“You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.” —Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
But you don’t necessarily need a first-person protagonist to make this work. Before he tells us “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” Kurt Vonnegut presents the reader with all sorts of personal vignettes, dirty limericks and the like in  his novel Slaughterhouse-Five.  How does that one begin?
“All this happened, more or less.”
And Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler  speaks directly to the reader because, well, it’s the reader that is the protagonist of that book. He makes that pretty clear in his famous, fourth-wall-breaking first line:
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler.”
There are plenty of other examples, too. This kind of opener can set tone, introduce a character or frame the main story:
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” —from Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
“For a long time, I went to bed early.” —from Marcel Proust, Swann's Way
“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.” —from Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
As it turns out, I don’t mind in the least if an author breaks the fourth wall. If anything it personalizes what I’m about to read, puts me on an equal footing with the author and treats me like I’m worth their story-telling time. Anybody else a fan? Anybody hate it?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What Bugs Me Wednesday: Deus ex machina

-"Swing away, Merrill! Deus ex machina's got you covered!"

This may be somewhat related to last week’s complaint, but you know what really bugs me? Deus ex machina.

That’s right, the plot device of last resort (it should be, anyway-) when a character paints themselves into a corner, or finds themselves in a hopeless situation, and some outside force or event swoops in to save their bacon. It’s maddening. You don’t often find it in so-called “high literature,” but it rears its ugly head every now and again. Take Cormack McCarthy’s The Road,  for example.

I loved that book. I loved how McCarthy pulled off ‘post-apocolyptic’ while remaining completely apolitical. That, in itself, is pretty refreshing. But given the bleak existence of his father and son duo in that book, their amazingly good luck in a couple of tight spots laps right up against the borders of Deus ex machina.

Literally starving to death in a scorched landscape where all food sources have been picked clean by raiders, they happen upon an untouched underground cache filled with everything you could imagine. Awfully convenient. Later on, and in similarly dire straits they discover a pristine cistern of crystal clear water under a layer of rain gutter scum. Finally, with his father dead for two days, the boy ventures back out to the road and meets, not another marauding gang or cannibalistic maniac, but one of the last remaining ‘good guys’ who promises to protect him. McCarthy pulls it off because he’s that good, but it still strikes me as a little too convenient when it’s all said and done.

I’ve mentioned Guiraldes’ Don Segundo Sombra  before. In that classic of Argentine literature, the main character works his way up as a gaucho, earning his stripes, not to mention a nice little nest egg that he then blows on an ill-advised cock-fight bet. Gone is his hope for the future, gone is his dream of owning “a string of ponies all of one color” ….  Until he inherits his own ranch out of nowhere, that is. Deus ex machina strikes again. And yeah, it kind of bugs me.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Food of San Francisco

“In the window I smelled all the food of San Francisco. There were seafood places out there where the buns were hot, and the baskets were good enough to eat, too; where the menus themselves were soft with foody esculence as though dipped in hot broths and roasted dry and good enough to eat too. Just show me the bluefish spangle on a seafood menu and I’d eat it; let me smell the drawn butter and lobster claws. There were places where they specialized in thick red roast beef au jus, or roast chicken basted in wine. There were places where hamburgs sizzled on grills and the coffee was only a nickel. And oh, that pan-fried chow mein flavored air that blew into my room from Chinatown, vying with the spaghetti sauces of North Beach, the soft-shell crab of Fisherman’s Wharf- nay, the ribs of Fillmore turning on spits! Throw in the Market Street chili beans, redhot, and frenchfried potatoes of the Embarcadero wino night, and steamed clams from Sausalito across the bay, and that’s my ah-dream of San Francisco.”
-from Jack Kerouac's On the Road

Monday, October 15, 2012

Thud Factor

Like any reader, I’ve got a long list of ‘books-I’d-like-to-read’ rattling around inside my head. Some of them have been there for years. Others I heard about last week. Sometimes, when I’m considering my next read and one of these books comes to mind I’ll log into my local library account and place a hold on one of them. I did this the other day with T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom  (the book that inspired the film“Lawrence of Arabia” and a book that’s been on my list for ten years at least.)

But when the notification email came and I headed down to pick it up, there was an audible burst of laughter that I couldn’t contain as the librarian dropped the book on the counter in front of me. I knew in a second that I wasn’t ready for this thing. It was huge, and it was heavy. Huger and heavier than my Organic Chemistry textbook in college. I peeked inside on the off chance it was a large print edition.  It wasn’t.

So I took it home, put it on the scale (a full five pounds, for the curious) and took the following picture, before placing it in a pile of books "to-be-returned," unread:

I should have placed a quarter next to it, or had one of my small children try to hold it, for reference, but I don’t generally carry cash and I don’t believe in child abuse. 

I’ve been tossing around the idea of writing something about the books I’ve never finished. But for now anyway, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom  belongs in different category:  books I never started because I chickened out after a single glance. 

Which books have made you crap your pants?

Friday, October 12, 2012

First Line Friday: A Peek Into the Future

Back to our First Line Fridays series. We’ve covered setting, axioms and dialogue, now let’s take a peek into the future.

Sometimes the best way to kick off a novel is to come right out and hang the ending before the reader like a carrot before a horse. This doesn’t necessarily mean the story is spoiled, mind you, but when the reader is given  some sense of destination the immediate reaction tends to be “Whoa! Okay,  so that’s where we’re going? I’m game.” Here’s a perfect example, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” —from One Hundred Years of Solitude.
We covered another such first line not too long ago, by Jeffrey Eugenides:
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” — from Middlesex.
Here’s what I wrote about that line at the time, it applies just as well to the first example:
"I love how the author delivers the crux of the plot in the very first line. He’s still going to take us through the twists and turns of a novel-length work, the slow burn of details, the crescendo of backstories and present action. But right there in the first line, he stabs his finger at the map and shows us our destination. It has the effect of making you wonder ‘how the devil are we going to get from here to there?’ And I, for one, was sold on the story."
Here’s another one, from Robert Graves’  I, Claudius :
"I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as "Claudius the Idiot," or "That Claudius," or "Claudius the Stammerer," or "Clau-Clau-Claudius" or at best as "Poor Uncle Claudius," am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the "golden predicament" from which I have never since become disentangled."
But sometimes all you have to do is hint at the ending. Others have handled the peek-into-the-future opening much more subtly. Take the first line of Dickens’s David Copperfield :
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
Or Paul Auster’s City of Glass:
“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not."
In that example, we don’t even have the slightest idea what  “it” is that the wrong number started, but there’s a hint of the story and its ending in there that makes you want to learn more. Count me as a fan of the peek-into-the-future first line. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Another month in the can

It’s been thirty more days, and in that period we’ve touched on roughly 50 authors. In case you missed them, here are our five most popular posts from last month:
Plus a smattering of the unlikely search terms that brought readers to
Keep coming back!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What Bugs Me Wednesday: Unbelievable Plot Points

You know what really bugs me? Unbelievable plot points. You know what I’m talking about. Those turning points in a story that, yes, are theoretically or scientifically possible, maybe even witnessed in real life, but are really only credible between the covers of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not,  and not  in any fiction that aims for a veneer of realism. As far as I’m concerned, you cannot give your character a one-in-a-million shot at making it out alive, and expect me to swallow it.

Don’t get me wrong, incredible things happen every day. Things that will blow your mind. But you can’t rely on something that happens once in a thousand tries, to save your character, resolve your story, or put a nice bow around a very messy plot. If you do, I’ll probably throw your book across the room.

Take “surviving a freefall” for example. It crops up now and again as a way to spice up fiction, and it really irks me. Are there documented cases of people surviving a fall from heights of 30,000 feet or more? Yes, there are. But that doesn’t mean you should make it the exit strategy for your character. Now, I understand the concept of terminal velocity as well as the next guy. But even if a falling body reaches a maximum falling speed due to increased drag, you’re still going to hit the ground at 122 miles per hour. Unless your book is about Gumby, I just don’t see things working out for your character.

At the climax of his novel Angels & Demons,  Dan Brown lets Robert Langdon plummet thousands of feet over Rome.  He survives, of course. He remembers from earlier in the novel that “one square yard of drag will slow a falling body 20%,” so he manages to grab some sort of window cover on his way out of the chopper. For those doing the math at home, 122 miles per hour reduced by 20% is still 98 miles per hour- but really, that’s for a face-down, belly-to-earth position. Not sure how Langdon would use his makeshift parachute in that maximum drag position. Brown might not have been sure either, which is why he had Langdon land in the Tiber River. This “churning” river is supposedly so “frothy and air-filled” that it is “three times softer than standing water.”*

Forget the fact that the helicopter would have to travel 2,000 to 2,500 horizontal feet to even get from St. Peter’s to the Tiber River. I’ve been to Rome, and that river is neither churning, nor frothy, nor air-filled. It creeps downstream like a moving lake, so I’m not buying Brown’s extenuating circumstances. It’s also probably not that deep, so in all likelihood Langdon would be looking at a few broken bones when it was all said and done. This free-fall has bugged me ever since I read it. It must have bugged Hollywood, too, because they kept Langdon on the ground in the movie.

Amendment to the complaint:

After mulling this over, I am willing to make a very specific exception to this rule. The unbelievable plot point might be acceptable as the inciting incident or launching pad for a story. In other words, if you’ve just survived a fall from 30,000 feet, then yeah, I want to learn more about you. You deserve to have your story told. And if an interesting and believable story follows your amazing brush with certain death, then I’ll read on.

As I understand it, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses  features a free-fall from 29,000 feet. Two characters fall into the English Channel and wash up on the beach alive. Given the magical realism in the book, and the fall serving as an inciting incident for the story, I’m going to give Rushdie a reluctant pass.

This is also why the Bourne Identity works (survival of several gunshot wounds, floating unconscious yet alive in a stormy sea.) It’s unbelievable, but it’s unbelievable in a way that gives you a reason to read on, rather than being a cheap gimmick to save the story. That would have bugged me.

*These quotes from the novel are taken from this page.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Author Look-Alikes Vol. 8

Though they don’t share the same hairline, there’s something in the eyes and mouth that makes young Erich Maria Remarque look an awful lot like John Malkovich:

High foreheard, low eyebrows, and piercing eyes- Jules Verne was his generation's Russel Crowe - plus a couple months of beard growth:

He's portly, he's got a sly expression and lots of thick hair- you can almost picture Alexandre Dumas walking into his local basement-level watering hole to a merry chorus of “Norm!”:

James Fenimore Cooper kind of reminds me of the backstabbing friend from Ghost (Tony Goldwyn):

And E.M. Forster? The first person who comes to mind when I look at that dude is Macy’s smarmy in-house psychologist from “Miracle on 34th Street” (Porter Hall):
Kind of makes you want to rap him on the head with your cane, doesn't it?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Talk Like a Beat Day

Today we’re taking a little break from First Line Fridays to remind you that “Talk Like a Beat Day” is coming up on Sunday October 7th.

Talk like what now, you ask? Like a Beat- as in Beatnik, daddyo. No, it’s not yet the international phenomenon that “Talk Like a Pirate Day” has become, but after finally joining the cult of Kerouac this year, I am heartily endorsing the Guardian’s declaration of October 7th as Talk Like a Beat Day.

Why October 7th?
“7 October was the original "Beat happening": the date that Allen Ginsberg first recited Howl in San Francisco, Kerouac beating out the rhythm with a wine jug and shouting "GO!" after every line. The beat movement of the 1950s is so rich in its own language and terminology that it's crying out for its own memorial event.”
Couldn’t agree more. Here is a glossary to get you started quickly:

And here is a collection of videos that might just give you some helpful inspiration. Can you dig it?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Borges' Immense Reward

I thought this somewhat disturbing photo of “Borges groupies” groping the blind author and inhaling his very breath (what else would you label what she’s doing?) was worth sharing on its own. But why not give it some context? Here is a quote from the video below that I thought was pretty fitting:
“Besides, the life of a writer is a lonely one. You think you are alone, and as the years go by, if the stars are on your side you may discover that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends, whom you will never get to know, but who love you. And that is an immense reward.”

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What Bugs Me Wednesday

You know what bugs me? Poorly laid out books. 

Do I really need two inches of whitespace at the bottom of the page?  Or an inch and a half on the outer edges? No. But you know  where I could use a little bit? That's right, where the pages are actually glued to the spine. That might be kind of nice.

Above is a look at my paperback Ethan Frome  - great for marginalia- but piss poor for holding it open with one hand and not  suffering debilitating hand cramps. This awesome book was a lot harder to read than it needed to be, and yeah, it kind of bugged me…

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Eugenides! (Reviewing The Marriage Plot and Middlesex)

After reading, and loving, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot  a month or two ago, I decided to do something I rarely do, and jump right back to the same author immediately. That time, I read his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Middelsex.  But because I’ve been so insanely busy lately, I haven’t actually reviewed either one of them here. 

Lest you think they’re not worth your time, I figured I better talk about them once and for all. And since my thoughts on both have kind of become intertwined, I thought it would make sense to review them together. So here’s a quick two-fer.

First of all, the writing. It’s straightforward, and there’s nothing pretentious about his prose, but he still packs an amazing punch with his language choices. See this post for some gems from The Marriage Plot.  Or take a gander at this smattering from Middlesex :
“Dr. Philibosian smelled like an old couch, of hair oil and spilled soup, of unscheduled naps.”
“Cologne made me think of voice coaches, of maitre d’s, of old men and their unwanted embraces.”
“I was scandalized by the filth of men’s rooms, the rank smells and pig sounds, the grunting and huffing from the stalls. Urine was forever puddled on the floors. Straps of soiled toilet paper adhered to the commodes. When you entered a stall, more often than not, a plumbing emergency greeted you, a brown tide, a soup of dead frogs.”
I absolutely love his word choices, but there’s also something in the cadence and pacing of his writing that accentuates his more interesting phrases. His style is not flowery, and it doesn’t call attention to itself, but it still manages to elicit hearty guffaws and appreciative sighs as I speed through the stories.

Speaking of the stories, I won’t share plot points or spoilers here. I’ll simply say that I thought each was engrossing in its own way. The Marriage Plot  for its intellectual themes and college days search-for-self, and Middlesex  for its sprawling, multigenerational scope. Pitting one against the other, I’d call Middlesex  the better book, but if there’s one criticism I would level, it’s this: the unliklihood of a single family history encompassing the Greco-Turkish War, the infamous Great Fire of Smyrna, the founder and founding of the Nation of Islam, and the 1967 Detroit Riot. All of that backdrop, taken together in one book, smacks ever so slightly of Forrest Gump. But I loved it. Just like I loved The Marriage Plot.  The reason, in a word, is research.

I should state here that I probably spent more time poring over my family’s gilt-edged World Book Encyclopedias than any other set of books growing up. I am, still today, a Wikipedia fiend. So if you’re anything like me, you’ll love Eugenides. Reading one of his novels is a bit like taking a series of small correspondence courses. Pick up Middlesex  and you’ll learn about all the historical events I listed above, plus silk farming, the Greek-American immigrant experience, the business of bootlegging, and the intersex condition known as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which lies at the center of the story. Same goes for The Marriage Plot,  only there you’ll be introduced to semiotics and deconstruction in literature, manic depression, yeast genetics, Christian mysticism and so much more.

Not only does Eugenides provide fascinating insights into all of these things, but he carries it off with a masterful storytelling ability that keeps plot paramount, yet leaves no doubt as to the novels’ broader themes. Sadly, he is on the nine-year plan (releasing novels in 1993, 2002, and 2011), which means we may not get to see another one until 2020. Until then I’ll have to savor The Virgin Suicides-  or reread one of his others. They’re that good.