May 26, 2013 § Leave a Comment
26 Arthur Phillips, The Tragedy of Arthur/F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
27 Kjersti A. Skomsvold, The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am
28 Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory
29 Andrew Miller, Pure
30 Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale
31 Tommy Wieringa, Little Caesar/Caesarion
1 Karen Russell, Swamplandia!
2 Kevin Barry, City of Bohane
3 Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
4 Chimamanda Adichie, Americanah
5 Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
6 Zoran Živković, The Last Book
7 Zoran Živković, Find Me
8 Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where the Tigers are at Home
9 William H. Gass, Middle C
10 Ron Currie Jr., Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles
11 Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
12 Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni
13 Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria
14 Karen Joy Fowler, We are all Completely Beside Ourselves
15 Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear it Away
16 Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
17 M. John Harrison, Empty Space
18 Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City
19 Thomas Wolfe, O Lost
20 Nihad Sirees, The Silence and the Roar
21 Jim Gavin, Middle Men
22 Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River
23 Yoko Ogawa, Revenge
24 Donna Tartt, The Secret History
25 F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise
26 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned
27 Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock
28 Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
29 Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
30 Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
It’ll be interesting to see how closely I manage to keep to this demanding schedule. But I do plan on writing two reviews this evening.
May 21, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I’m going to schedule/write at least one post (over half of which will be reviews) for each day of the month. I say “schedule” because on June 7-8, I’ll be in Vicksburg, Mississippi with my dad and middle brother visiting the Civil War battle site (there’ll be a post on that after I return), so I’ll schedule two posts to appear on those days that I am gone from home.
I plan on reviewing (if I don’t do some of it in the next 10 days) the other novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald that I haven’t already reviewed (Tender is the Night likely will be reviewed before May 31st, so This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and the Damned, and the unfinished The Last Tycoon) and maybe an overview of some of his short fiction. I will also resume writing backdated reviews of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, at least to get caught up to the Friday schedule I had planned in January before I was hired for my positions.
Probably will also review more of Zoran Živković’s work as well; certainly The Last Book and its sequel, Find Me, will be reviewed. Hope to review a couple of recent Spanish-language releases, including Ildefonso Falcones’ latest historical fiction, La reina descalza (The Barefoot Queen). There might be some coverage of Clockwork Phoenix 4 (disclosure: I donated money to the Kickstarter for it) and possibly for Conjunctions: 60: In Absentia. And other works that will be as much of a surprise for me to cover as it may be for you to read here.
Oh, and maybe there’ll be a squirrel sighting or two. They are devoted, rabid…readers, after all
May 21, 2013 § 10 Comments
Below is a list of the 2013 releases that I have read, followed by those owned that I haven’t yet finished reading:
1. Leah Stewart, The History of Us
2. Tomas Dobozy, Siege 13 (collection)
3. George Saunders, Tenth of December (collection; already reviewed)
4. Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, A Memory of Light (already reviewed)
5. Jim Harrison, The River Swimmer
6. Thomas Maltman, Little Wolves
7. Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe, Peanut (graphic novel)
8. João Barreiros (ed.), Lisboa no Ano 2000 (Portuguese; anthology; already reviewed)
9. Yoko Ogawa, Revenge (collection)
10. Adam Mansbach, Rage is Back
11. Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then (already reviewed)
12. Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito, The End of Oulipo? (non-fiction)
13. Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar (English translation; already reviewed)
14. Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (collection; already reviewed)
15. Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds (made a brief commentary already)
16. Carlene Bauer, Frances and Bernard
17. John Thavis, The Vatican Diaries (non-fiction; already reviewed)
18. Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City (English translation)
19. Jennifer Cody Epstein, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment
20. Pierre Grimbert, The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs
21. John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen (eds.), Oz Reimagined (anthology)
22. Xu Lei, Search for the Buried Bomber (English translation)
23. Jim Gavin, Middle Men (collection)
24. Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (already reviewed)
25. William H. Gass, Middle C
26. Nalo Hopkinson, Sister Mine
27. Nihad Sirees, The Silence and the Roar
28. Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
29. Mary Beth Keane, Fever
30. Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, Where Tigers are at Home (US edition of English translation)
31. James Salter, All That Is
32. Alliah, Metanfetaedro (Portuguese; collection)
33. Ron Currie Jr., Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles
34. Jonathan Dee, A Thousand Pardons
35. Justin Landon and Jared Shurin (eds.), Speculative Fiction 2012 (non-fiction anthology; contains two articles by myself)
36. M. John Harrison, Empty Space (US edition)
37. May Swenson, Collected Poems (Library of America edition)
38. Ildefonso Falcones, La reina descalza (Spanish)
39. James Kelman, Mo Said She Was Quirky
Own But Not Yet Finished Reading:
40. Mike Allen (ed.), Clockwork Phoenix 4 (anthology; I contributed to the Kickstarter funding of it)
41. Denise Kiernan, The Girls of Atomic City (non-fiction)
42. Chimamanda Adichie, Americanah
43. W.S. Merwin, The Collected Poems of W.S. Merwin (two-volume Library of America edition)
44. Brooks D. Simpson (ed.), The Civil War: The Third Year Told By Those Who Lived It (non-fiction anthology published by the Library of America)
45. Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni
While this might seem like an exhaustive list of 2013 releases to date, I’m certain there are several promising and/or outstanding works that have slipped my attention. So feel free to suggest recent releases that might be of interest to me and/or this blog’s readership.
May 20, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Lots of thoughts lately on what I’ve been reading that I haven’t yet put to e-print. Memories of past selves, dreaming and envisioning things that have not yet come to fruition or have shifted with age and experience. Not as many speculative fictions read lately, not because I’ve suddenly become inveterately opposed to them, but more because what I am seeking involving more a turning inward, for a time at least, and that seems to be more the province of poetry and realist literature, although certainly there are some “weird” fictions that explore things that jibe with my current desires.
So with these thoughts in mind, it was interesting to discover this weekend this post written about two weeks ago by Tobias Buckell in response to a book blogger’s (n.b. I reject this term in describing what I do) lament about his change in reviewing focus. Buckell raises some interesting points about the “maturation” of online reviewers/book bloggers, particularly in regards to his first point:
1) When you get to a point where you’ve read an amazing number of books, you change. You’ve read so much that what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you’re reading) is just a variation to you. Your expectations regarding the work change.
Due to subjectivity being what it is, many writers can mistake what’s happening and view it as the books getting worse, not their own aesthetic changing. Two things can happen. One, despair at what they perceive is the dying of quality. You see this a lot with people who hit a certain number of books read: they begin to rail against the dreadfulness of everything. It can lead to bitterness, cynicism, and outright hatred of something they previously loved.
There is certainly a lot of truth to this. Over the course of 21 years (since my high school graduation in May 1992), I have probably read a little over 10,000 different books. Histories, cultural studies, monographs, poetry, religious tracts, novels, short fiction – in aggregate, reading and, even more importantly, commenting on these disparate works has helped me mature not just as a reader but also as a person. But I do not fully agree with Buckell’s comment that “what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you’re reading) is just a variation to you.” This statement implies a static relationship on the part of the text in contrast to a dynamic paradigm shift for the reader. This does happen often, yes, but not necessarily always. At times, texts can seem to shift themselves due specifically to the reader’s own maturation.
For example, I just finished re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night for the first time in at least 15 years. I recall thinking back in 1997-1998 that it was superior to The Great Gatsby and that it had to do with how the characters of Dick and Nicole Diver were drawn, but re-reading this weekend (and also having just watched the 1961 cinema adaptation of it) made me appreciate it even more. Due to 15 years’ greater experience with reading and reviewing fiction, I feel as though I have a greater understanding of how Fitzgerald came to spend so much time working on this novel; it has a raw, visceral quality to it that The Great Gatsby mostly lacks. It is not a work that has “aged poorly” for me, but instead one that speaks at least as well to the 38 year-old me as it did to the 23-24 year-old version.
What Buckell focuses mostly on in his article is SF/F fiction. To be fair, that is what most “book bloggers” (or at least those of whom a SF/F author would likely be aware) cover. Even this blog, back when it was intended to be an affiliate of the now-defunct wotmania site, began with a focus on SF/F, although even back then, there was a sense of a dichotomy between what I had grown up reading – poetry and realist fictions – and what I had largely “discovered” (outside of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis) in my mid-20s. So soon after wotmania went offline, I began to drift back toward my adolescent interests. Yet re-reading old favorites revealed my tastes had shifted in the interim. Gone was a “simple” reaction of a reader to the text. Instead, likely influenced equally by the dozens of short reviews of historical monographs that I had to write in college and grad school and by the fictions, realist and speculative alike, that I had read since my late teens, I was a more “critical” reader, looking not just at the “checkbox” elements of lit courses but also at how things were integrated (or not) within a text.
At first, I consciously decided not to include these reflections within my reviews; after all, back during the first five years of this blog’s existence, I was more interested in building an audience than I was in exploring what interested me the most. But after a while, I grew weary of worrying about others’ expectations and I decided over the past four years that I would try to review and promote more of the literature that interested me now. So there have been more non-Anglophone literature reviewed (both realist and speculative alike). A bit more on poetry (although I’ve yet to port over here my two columns on Eric Basso’s writing that I wrote last year for Weird Fiction Review; I consider my piece on his poetry to be the best writing I did in 2012), although I would like to focus more on it in the near future than I have to date. These things likely cost me much of my “audience,” or at least the one I had from 2004-2009, but I think there have been those who have discovered this blog precisely because I started reviewing things that not many others were doing, or at least not all in one (or two) place.
Now let’s look at Buckell’s second point, which I think is more applicable to those who review only one form of literature than toward those who have shifted their reading/reviewing focus like I have done:
2) If you’re able to either unconsciously or consciously navigate the above, what you’re left with isn’t a raw, initial passion for reviewing what you love, but a more craftman’s-like examination of the book for an audience you may no longer really be a part of, but can remember being a part of. It’s easy to slip into this vein, by will or luck, because it does allow you to keep reading a ton while reporting back on the basics of what you read.
What those reviews are basically covering is “If you like X sort of thing, this hits X okay, with some additional Y and Z, if you also are into that.” Do they feel sucked dry of a bit of the reviewer’s authorial voice? Yeah, probably, because the reviewer has had to step back out of necessity in order to report back to a larger audience.
I think it’s probably a sign of a maturation of book blogging. I’m seeing a lot of book blogs that I used to have bookmarked went and folded up shop. I imagine that was as a result of hitting a certain threshold of either of the two points I relayed, and not seeing a way through. Book bloggers are doing it for the love, they’re not making mad money. They’re enthusiastic spreaders of the word.
So what happens when a lot of that joy fades? Do they continue on momentum? Look to monetize the blog? Focus only on the books that they love, and risk losing the audience and community they created (because they’re interested in artist’s artists, or decrying the lack of originality, while readers who enjoy the books being decried decamp)? Get bitter and throw some bombs, which will certainly create debate and energy, but can also create pushback and enough argumentation that they get tired of the fighting about stuff (unless they’re trollish in nature, in which case they feed off the acid and you’ll always have that)?
I’d be curious to see what long-term professional reviewers think about this stage. As an author you hit this stage, and you often see new writers hitting it. As they accumulate enough writing craft and books read, they pass through a great deal of 1 and 2. And it’s hard to talk someone down in the middle of that.
I’ve never been a reviewer whose reviews have been dominated by “passion.” If anything, that likely has created a barrier between myself and certain readers who do want a more “personal connection” with a reviewer. But I think my long-standing devotion to “craft” has served me well, as there is something to be taken (I hope!) from my reviews other than just a simple “did he like it or not?” Perhaps this is a “maturation” that took place before I ever created this Blogger account in August 2004. Certainly it is a lasting influence of my academic days and it is, for myself at least, a positive influence that has led to opportunities, professional and personal alike, that I likely would not have had the chance to do if I hadn’t been more devoted to my “craft.”
Buckell’s post can perhaps be summarized as being not just solely about the “maturation” of “book blogging,” but also about the poles of “love” and “hate” that a writer can experience over the course of his/her career. It feels like something that would be penned by someone transitioning into middle age and who has asked himself similar questions (which he does acknowledge in the course of his article). I myself feel such a dilemma has grown ever more remote as I have aged. What I do is explore and (re)discover things of personal interest. These interests change in numerous ways, but there is more to discover than to worry about what doesn’t appeal as much to me at the moment. Perhaps that’s a “maturation” of a different sort, of the sort referenced by Bob Dylan in his song “My Back Pages”?
May 15, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Cinema is a very different medium from literature, no matter how frequently and how in-depth directors appropriate literary works in creating their cinematic adaptations. Often films labeled “based on the novel” are wretched, turgid affairs not because the directors fail to be faithful enough to the source material but instead because they are too faithful, at least to the letter of the story and not to its spirit. This is especially notable when the source material is a classic that has the mass readership comparable to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby. In the 88 years since its release, four cinema versions (only three are extant – 1949, 1974, 2013 – with the 1926 silent film version being mostly “lost”) and one television mini-series (2000) have been released. Of these adaptations, I have seen the 1974 and 2013 versions and over the course of two reviews, I plan on noting the ways that both approach Fitzgerald’s novel and the strengths and weaknesses of each.
The 1974 version certainly had some major starpower. With a screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola, this film also featured Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan. With a running time of just over 2 hours and 20 minutes, the film was very faithful to the scenes and dialogue of the novel. If anything, it tried too hard to replicate the voice of the novel, instead creating a cinematic experience that is often cold and distant from the vibrancy of Fitzgerald’s tale. The only two characters who stand out are Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) and George Wilson (Scott Wilson); each of them figures more significantly into the action here than in the 2013 edition. The rest of the roles are competently if not brilliantly executed by others including Bruce Dern (who played Tom Buchanan) and Lois Chiles (Jordan Baker).
The action mirrors the novel closely; there are very few scenes that do not at least quote parts of the corresponding novel. At times, the movie feels as though it is close to becoming vibrant and emotional, only to see those traces of livelihood stamped down almost immediately. Redford, based on his other films of the 1970s, could have displayed a wider range with Gatsby, but instead (possibly directed to do so by director Jack Clayton) his Gatsby is too formal, too polished, too devoid of inner anguish to really engage the viewer. Likewise, Farrow’s Daisy is an odd character. While her Daisy at least attempts to speak with a posh Southern accent, there were several instances where Farrow’s Daisy oscillates between capricious love and diffident materialism. While this oscillation certainly jibes more with the original novel than how the character was portrayed in the 2013 version, it is too jarring here. Perhaps the point is that Daisy’s vapidness is what makes her character so attractive to some, but Farrow too often overplays it. Her scenes with Redford feel cold and the emotional lines uttered by both feel as natural as if a Wookie were to start emoting Hamlet.
Yet there are some interesting moments in this film. Early scenes with Myrtle Wilson and the McKees in the NYC apartment as well as the first seen party at Gatsby’s mansion reveal a more nuanced approach toward the flappers and their rebellion against social mores than does the 2013 version. Here, there is not the emphasis on spectacle that the recently-released adaptation has, but instead in their dances and in their comments, the young women, major and bit players alike, are not as sexualized here. Although there certainly are hints of dalliances taking place in this film, the women here are allowed to be slightly more well-rounded than they are in the current release. Chiles’ Jordan Baker more openly displays her amorality compared to Elizabeth Debicki’s portrayal, as her interpretation of the character is more subtle and yet clear in terms of her refusal to be constricted by rules and regulations. As noted above, Farrow’s Daisy displays a wider range (albeit a range that sometimes works against the best interests of key scenes) and she is not as apparently besotted with Gatsby as was Carey Mulligan’s interpretation of the character. The same goes for Karen Black and how her Myrtle Wilson captured more of the class consciousness of the novel than Isla Fisher’s more sex-centered portrayal.
Waterston’s Nick carefully walks the line between being a keen observer and a callow pushover. His Nick is perhaps slightly better than Tobey Maguire’s simply because Nick plays a more integral part in the 1974 film. Yet due to his co-stars’ failures to capture the mixture of burning passion and callousness that was present in the novel, Nick’s more memorable lines do not succeed in capturing the depths of his emotional confusion and outrage. The only character that truly does so is George Wilson. Scott Wilson’s interpretation captures a man whose simple honesty stands in sharp relief to the capricious games that the Buchanans, Jordan, and others play over the course of the film. His descent into murderous grief is very believable here because more effort is made to show his inner conflicts.
At nearly two and a half hours, this film felt at times interminable due to the subpar acting performances and focus on showing the glamor of the 1922 Long Island setting at the expense of developing the characters better. Yet the film suffers not only because it is compared to a great novel, but because its own promise was thwarted time and time again by Clayton’s choice to emphasize the exterior at the expense of the characters themselves. With few exceptions, the characterizations show glints of greatness that are covered with a thick grime of affected poses and perfunctory nods toward character conflict. This 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby captures the skeleton and most of the skin of the novel, but its heart and soul are withered in comparison. Not recommended for most viewers.
May 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought – frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.
And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction – Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament” – it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No – Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. (pp. 6-7 e-book edition)
For nearly ninety years, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) has entranced and befuddled readers. It is simultaneously a narrative of an age and a repudiation of it. At times elegant and sophisticated in its treatment of the Jazz Age of the 1920s, it also outlines the self-destructions that took place during the Prohibition Era in the aftermath of World War I. Yet each generation finds something of itself within this narrative. For the first readers, The Great Gatsby was a portrait of ephemerality, a mere capturing of a helluva party and its blinding hangover. It is little surprise in hindsight that during Fitzgerald’s lifetime that it sold poorly; it was but one of several “period pieces” and not necessarily the most inventive one (even among Fitzgerald’s own works) at that. Yet something began to change during World War II. Perhaps it was the author’s death and his friend (and book critic) Edmund Wilson’s tireless championing of Fitzgerald’s work that led to its rediscovery nearly twenty years after its initial publication. Whatever it was, for the post-WWII generation, The Great Gatsby read more like a prophecy of their own times, of the period before the deluges of the Great Depression and World War II. The wild excesses of the speakeasies and the flamboyant daring of the flappers stood out in contrast to the grinding mass poverty of the 1930s and the destruction of WWII. It is easy to see within The Great Gatsby a condemnation of the extravagance of the Roaring ’20s and a brief hint of the ruinous world to come. Yet other generations, namely those of the ’60s and ’80s, could see in the hypnotic lure of the period presages of their own riotous rebellions against the parsimonious qualities of the decades before them. Even today, there is something compelling about that time which Fitzgerald narrates in such detail. In the wake of the wars on terrorism and human rights (depending upon your outlook, I suppose), there is a paradoxically hedonistic innocence to the Jazz Age. The rations of WWI were over, women had begun to gain long-overdue civil rights, and the whole country seemed to be in a state of reactive rebellion against the constraints of rationing and the Progressive Era prohibition movement.
Yet within these socio-cultural rebellions lurked something less noble and more threatening. In the character of Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald presents a modern-day Trimalchio (originally, this was the title to the first draft of the story), a near-innocent who observes the degradations that people put themselves through in order to make themselves believe that they are alive and of great worth. The opening section, excerpted above, shows the character reflecting back on the tumultuous year of 1922 in the fictitious Long Island settings of East and West Egg. Through the Midwestern middle-class eyes of Nick, Fitzgerald details not just the glitz and glamor of the bon ton set but also the more sordid lives of the Wilsons and those who lived on the margins of (polite) society during the 1920s. Overlooked by readers focusing on the love triangles of Gatsby-Daisy-Tom and Tom-Myrtle-George is Fitzgerald’s keen eye for the troubling societal issues of the day. “The valley of ashes,” while it does not constitute a major part of the story in terms of page count, provides a counterpoint to the decadent parties of the West and East Eggers:
This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the form of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powderly air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. (beginning of Ch. 2, p. 25 e-book)
It is here that the most grievous exploitations are witnessed: the cuckolding of the auto repairman George Wilson, the casual domestic violence toward his wife Myrtle by Tom, and the casual dismissal of the populace by both the nouveau riche West Eggers and the old money East Eggers alike. Fitzgerald outlines their plight in short yet sharp strokes; a detailed portrait of the lives of those who did not benefit from the 1920s speculations glints through the narrative. Yet Fitzgerald’s main concern is not with illustrating the underclasses and how they bear the brunt of providing the services for the idle elites but instead is with exploring the moral lassitude of the business and gentry classes. In scenes involving the consumption of bootlegged alcohol or the parties at Gatsby’s, the shallowness and corrupted natures of a wide range of characters is shown: barely is anyone exempt from Fitzgerald’s caustic pen, as police commissioners rub drunken shoulders with crime lords while carousing young men and women dance in a Bacchanalia of frenzied excess. The overall effect is that of an observer narrating the decline and fall of a civilization into petty greed and self-absorption.
This certainly can be seen in three of the main characters: Jordan Baker and the unhappily-married couple of Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Beneath the flash of each of them (golf star, debutante, former college athlete and wealthy heir) lurks nastier traits such as Jordan’s duplicity toward not just Nick but to all that she encounters; Daisy’s reduction of love to material baubles; and Tom’s arrogance toward those who he presumes to be of “lower status” than himself. Even Nick comes across as a pushover, a semi-willing accomplice to deeds that he publicly professes to despise. The world of the Buchanans and those who move in their circle such as Jordan is that of callous disregard for those who cannot provide them with what they need. Fitzgerald not only has Nick voice these opinions but he reveals them through the actions of these characters. The result is a story version of staring entranced at a cobra, knowing that eventually it is going to strike with deadly consequences.
And so it goes in the second half. Ironically, it is Gatsby himself, with his mysterious past, who provides a counter. He moves in the world of swindlers, social parasites, and gangsters and yet no matter how many of their guises he may don, ultimately none of these cling to him. He is surprisingly noble and optimistic in a society that has narrowed its hopes from the spiritual to the base materialism of money, booze, and sex. If anything, he is almost too good to be true and it is to Fitzgerald’s credit that he recognized that and created a character with enough foibles to become a flawed yet sympathetic character whose pseudo-requited love and tragic end resonate more powerfully because he is the antithesis of the other characters.
The Great Gatsby flows smoothly from scene to scene, as the reader witnesses the apparent dissolution of the Buchanans’ marriage and the apparent renewed love of Daisy and Gatsby in a detailed yet quick-moving fashion. Fitzgerald’s dialogues are outstanding, as he masterfully captures the voices of his characters. There are very few false notes, either in the narrative or in the themes that Fitzgerald explores. The conclusion is powerful because of the time spent developing the characters and their flaws. There are no heroes, just only the dead and animated corpses who have shambled throughout the book looking for their next fix. The Great Gatsby continues to be an important work not because it is required reading for millions of high school and college students but because it transcends its particular time and explores the human condition in a way that makes it feel new for succeeding generations. It truly is a masterpiece of American literature and one that deserves to be examined and re-examined as its readers grow older and perhaps less wise about the world around them.
May 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
In February 1955, just as she was readying the order of stories for A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O’Connor wrote a story, “Good Country People,” over the course of four days that she later gushed about in letters to publisher Robert Giroux (Feb. 26) and Thomas Mabry (March 1). In her letter to Mabry, she outlines the story’s connections with her other fictions and and how her faith informs her writing:
I am glad you see the belief in mine because it is there. The truth is my stories have been watered and fed by Dogma. I am a Catholic (not because it’s advantageous to my writing but because I was born and brought up one) and at some point in my life I realized that not only was I a Catholic but that this was all I was, that I was a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist but like someone else would be an atheist. If my stories are complete it is because I see everything as beginning with original sin, taking in the Redemption, and reckoning on a final judgment. I have heard people say that all this stifles a writer, but that is foolishness; it only preserves your sense of mystery…
I have delayed my collection a little by writing a story two weeks ago called “Good Country People.” It is the best thing I have done and they will include it if doing so doesn’t cost them too much money. If they don’t include it, I am going to send you a copy of it because it is one of those examples of the will and the imagination fusing and it is so rare an experience for me that I am a little unhinged by it. (pp. 930-931, Library of America edition)
In many aspects, “Good Country People” lives up to O’Connor’s self-appraisal. In it can be found the echo of themes that she explored in her earlier fictions, as well as a conclusion that might be, along with those of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The River,” one of her best. It, like several other tales in the 1955 collection, is an exploration of pride and the forms in which it manifest itself. “Good Country People” also relies heavily on irony, as seemingly innocuous events early in the story are inverted by story’s end and recast as something darker, more significant than what otherwise might be expected.
The story opens with the reflections of a landlady, Mrs. Hopewell. Although Mrs. Hopewell is not the central character in “Good Country People,” her meditations on people, particularly her tenants, the Freemans, and her daughter Joy, establish the dissonance between how the characters see themselves and how the situation actually is:
Since she [Mrs. Freeman] was the type who had to be into everything, then, Mrs. Hopewell had decided, she would not only let her be into everything, she would see to it that she was into everything – she would giver her the responsibility of everything, she would put her in charge. Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack. She had hired the Freemans and she had kept them four years.
Nothing is perfect. This was one of Mrs. Hopewell’s favorite sayings. Another was: that is life! And still another, the most important, was: well, other people have their opinions too. She would make these statements, usually at the table, in a tone of gentle insistence as if no one held them but her, and the large hulking Joy, whose constant outrage had obliterated every expression from her face, would stare just a little to the side of her, her eyes icy blue, with the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it. (pp. 264-265)
There is more than just a faint echo of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”‘s grandmother or the child from “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” in Mrs. Hopewell and her miserable, bitter daughter. The mother’s false sense of propriety finds its twisted mirror image in the daughter’s sneering, self-loathing self. Joy, the victim of some childhood hunting accident that led to the amputation of a leg, is the object of her mother’s pity, which infuriates Joy (or rather, Hulga, as she legally changed her name to that when she reached adulthood) to no end. If Mrs. Hopewell can be seen as a representation of the vacuous, self-blinding “good” member of society, Joy/Hulga in turn represents the frustrated, bitter pride of those who feel as though they have been denied fairness in life. Further burdened with a “weak heart” that might curtail her life, Joy/Hulga has built up high walls of resentment and bitterness. Possessing a Ph.D. in Philosophy and yet unable to find even a modicum of happiness or joy in her life, the now thirty-two year-old Hulga believes that by embracing nihilism (or what she understands to be nihilism) that she will gain a sense of superiority over others that her body has failed to allow her to do. It is an ugly portrait of an character and yet that ugliness fascinates O’Connor. She easily could have merely set Hulga up for a dashing of this false sense of herself, but she goes beyond Hulga’s petty self and delves into a deeper, societal-wide hypocrisy that presumes to know “good country people” (and by implication, its opposite) when they see it.
“Good Country People” turns from internal character analyses toward a metaphorical discussion of pride and self-blindness when an apparently naive, bumbling Bible salesman, Manly Pointer, makes his appearance, futilely trying to sell a Bible to Mrs. Hopewell:
He didn’t get up. He began to twist his hands and looking down at them, he said softly, “Well, lady, I’ll tell you the truth – not many people want to buy one nowadays and besides, I know I’m real simple. I don’t know how to say a thing but to say it. I’m just a country boy.” He glanced up into her unfriendly face. “People like you don’t like to fool with country people like me!”
“Why!” she cried, “good country people are the salt of the earth! Besides, we all have different ways of doing, it takes all kinds to make the world go ’round. That’s life!” (pp. 270-271)
Embarrassed enough to ask him to stay for dinner, Mrs. Hopewell finds herself beguiled by Pointer’s seemingly simple earnestness, so unlike her own jaundiced view of people. Yet somehow, he manages to catch Joy/Hulga’s attention enough to surprise Mrs. Hopewell. However, for Hulga, this is little more to her than an opportunity to defraud a simpleton, a way to prove to herself that her belief that she can see through everything will be confirmed. The two plan to walk together in the countryside the following Saturday. Hulga makes vague plans on how to seduce this simple-minded salesman, but as the two walk and eventually climb into a barn loft, this apparent fool is nobody’s fool at all, as he casually crushes each of Hulga’s cherished beliefs in her superiority, leaving her forlornly to recognize the depths to which she has been duped, not just by “Pointer,” but also by her own self-pride in “knowing” that there was ultimately nothingness around which people constructed their fantasies.
O’Connor does an outstanding job in developing events leading up to Pointer’s unmasking of his true self. The little self-deceptions that Hulga, her mother, and even the relatively worldly Mrs. Freeman engage in see their fruitions in the story’s final three pages. Yet there is more to “Good Country People” than the revelation of the deficiencies of Hulga’s view of herself and the world. There is the sense of multiple self-deceptions and self-blinding behaviors that can be seen in people from all walks of life. O’Connor not only makes a statement regarding the limitations of “nihilistic” worldviews, she also presents in an unflattering light the self-importance that people attach to themselves. Beyond Hulga’s prideful belief that nothing matters lurks the mother’s milder yet ultimately no better view of others around her or Mrs. Freeman’s more cynical view of society. Even “good country people” is little more than the imagined prosperous lauding an equally imagined group of poor souls whose “goodness” is merely a cover for their inability to manipulate the deceit-ridden world around them. O’Connor turns a bright light on this view, revealing its core of benign contemptuousness. In this can be seen a greater sense of inflated pride, in that “we won’t be taken in like that!” while time and time again, this assumption is proven to be false. “Good Country People” succeeds as a tale because it operates on more than just the plot level. The irony of seeing Joy/Hulga’s preconceptions turned against her is only the surface level of a story that has deeper thematic levels, each of which reinforce each other and create a deceptively complex tale that reveals new layers upon successive re-readings. Out of the ten stories that appear in A Good Man is Hard to Find, “Good Country People” is the equal to “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and the last story in the collection, “The Displaced Person,” for its prose, characterization, and thematic treatments. Simply put, it is an outstanding short story, one that can be approached from multiple perspectives and still possess a vitality to it even after it has been dissected and its components probed extensively.
Originally posted at Gogol’s Overcoat in March 2013.