Friday, January 29, 2010

319. Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin

History: Published in 1953, the novel is semi- autobiographical. James Baldwin grew up in Harlem and never knew his biological father. His stepfather was a Pentecostal Christian minister and Baldwin said he was abusive and strict. Also like John, Baldwin underwent a religious awakening at the age of 14, the age when Baldwin became a preacher. He later became disillusioned with church life and expressed this in his later novels. The rhythm and language of the story draws heavily on the language of the Bible, particularly of the King James translation.
Plot: The opening chapter tells the story of John, a young African-American boy in Harlem in the 1930s. John has been raised by his mother Elizabeth and her preacher husband Gabriel, who nominally is John's father and is a strict disciplinarian, abusive to both his children and his wife. Gabriel's religious philosophy is tough and one of salvation through faith in Jesus, without which one is damned to hell. John hates his father and dreams of wounding or killing him and running away.
Florence's prayer tells her life story. She was born to a freed slave who chose to continue to work in the South for a white family. Her mother always favored Florence's younger brother Gabriel, causing Florence to feel a yearning need to escape from her life. Florence buys a one-way train ticket to New York and leaves her mother on her deathbed. In New York, Florence marries a dissolute man named Frank, resulting in a power struggle within their marriage which ends after ten years when Frank leaves one night and never returns. He later dies in France in World War I, but Florence only finds out from Frank's girlfriend.
Gabriel's prayer starts with a description of his drunken, womanizing ways as a teenager, before his rebirth in Christ and the start of his career as a preacher. After his conversion he forms a relationship with a childhood friend of Florence, a slightly older woman from his town named Deborah who was gang-raped as a teenager by a band of white men. Deborah is devout in her faith, and Gabriel uses her strength to become a successful Reverend himself. However, despite his religious convictions, Gabriel is unable to resist his physical attraction for a woman named Esther. He has a brief affair with her but then ends it out of guilt. When Esther finds herself pregnant, Gabriel steals his wife's savings and gives them to Esther to hush up the matter and allow Esther to go away to have her baby; she goes to Chicago but dies giving birth to their son, Royal. Royal knows his father but doesn't know of their relationship, and is eventually killed in a barroom fight in Chicago. Gabriel is powerless and unable to stop his son's murder. Deborah, who knew or suspected that Royal was her husband's son from the beginning, admonishes Gabriel before her death for abandoning Esther and his son.
Elizabeth's prayer, the shortest of the three, tells her story. As a young girl, Elizabeth was very close to her father, but when her mother dies, she is forced by a court order to live with an imperious and cold aunt, and then goes to live in New York with a friend of the aunt's who works as a medium. It turns out that Gabriel is not John's biological father. Elizabeth had gone to New York with her boyfriend, Richard, a self-educated "sinner" who did not believe in the Church and who never carried out his promise to marry Elizabeth. Richard is arrested for a robbery he didn't commit, and while he is acquitted at trial, the experience - including the abuse he takes at the hands of white police officers - leads him to commit suicide on his first night home. Elizabeth, then just a few months pregnant with John, takes a job, where she meets Florence. Florence introduces her to Gabriel, whom she marries.
The final chapter returns to the church, where John falls to the floor in a spiritual fit (which is depicted as real and unaffected). Curiously, he is overtaken (by the spirit) right after his friend Elisha swoons. He has a series of dreamlike visions, seeing visions of hell and heaven, life and death, and seeing Gabriel standing over him. When he awakes, he says that he is saved and that he has accepted Jesus. Yet even as the group leaves the church, old sins are revisited as Florence threatens to tell Elizabeth of Gabriel's sordid past.
Review: Go Tell It On The Mountain is a symphony of the post-great migration black family, their interior lives, interconnection with their southern past and ability to survive through tremendous pain. Mountain is a novel brave enough to study and examine the wounds that black people have instead of using them to either browbeat a white audience or ask them for pity. It is also a novel, showing the bind religion has on the scope of African American lives and history, how it helped black people survive during their darkest hours and how black people can barely live its ruthless orthodoxies.
Opening Line: “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”
Closing Line: “I’m ready,” John said, “I’m coming. I’m on my way.”
Quotes: “And now in the sudden silence, she heard him cry: no the cry of the child, newbornm, before the commonlight of earth; but the cry of the man-child, bestial, before the light that comes down from Heaven.”
Rating: Good.

318. Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett

History: Published in 1930, The main character, Sam Spade, appears only in this novel and in three lesser known short stories, yet is widely cited as the crystallizing figure in the development of the hard-boiled private detective genre.
Plot: Private eye Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer are hired into service to a woman who calls herself Miss Wonderly to follow a man, Floyd Thursby, who has allegedly run off with her underage baby sister. Spade and Archer take the assignment because the money is good. Spade also implies that the woman looks like trouble, though she projects wholesome innocence.
That night, Spade is awakened by police detective Tom Polhaus, who informs Spade that Archer has been shot, killed and left at the bottom of a dead-end street. Spade knows that Archer was supposed to be tailing Thursby and tells Polhaus this when questioned about Archer's activities but refuses to reveal the identity of their client. Much later that night, Polhaus and his partner Lieutenant Dundy visit Spade at his apartment and inquire about Spade's whereabouts in the last few hours. The officers say that Thursby was also killed and that Spade is a suspect, since Thursby likely killed Archer. They have no evidence against Spade at the moment, but tell him that they will be conducting an investigation into the matter.
The next day, Spade gets a visit from Archer's wife Iva, with whom he has been having an affair. She asks Spade if he killed Miles so that they could be together. Spade dismisses her and tells her to leave, and coldly orders his secretary Effie Perine to remove all of Archer's belongings from the office. He then goes to a new address left in a note from his client, whose real name he learns is Brigid O'Shaughnessy. He also finds out that O'Shaughnessy never had a sister, and Thursby was her acquaintance who had betrayed her.
Later, Spade is visited by another man, Joel Cairo, who offers Spade $5,000 if the private eye can retrieve a figurine of a black bird that has recently arrived in San Francisco. While Spade has no idea what the man is talking about, he plays along. Suddenly, Cairo pulls a gun on Spade, and declares his intention to search Spade's office. But when he approaches Spade to search his person, Spade disarms him and knocks him unconscious. After cataloguing Cairo's belongings and questioning him in return, Spade returns Cairo's firearm and allows the man to search his office. Following this, Spade is again contacted by Brigid O'Shaughnessy. She offers her sympathies for the death of his partner. Spade senses a connection between O'Shaughnessy and Cairo, and casually mentions that Cairo has contacted him. O'Shaughnessy becomes extremely nervous when she hears this, telling Spade that she must see Cairo and asking Spade to arrange a meeting. Spade agrees.
When Cairo and O'Shaughnessy meet at Spade's apartment, they make references that the reader and Spade don't initially comprehend. Cairo says he is ready to pay for the black figurine. O'Shaughnessy, however, says she does not have it at the moment. They also refer to a mysterious figure, "G", whom they seem to be scared of. The two then continue to talk about some events that happened overseas. Eventually, O'Shaughnessy insinuates that Cairo is a homosexual, and Cairo insinuates that O'Shaughnessy simply uses her body to get what she wants. Soon after the two begin to fight, the police show up at the apartment, coincidentally, to talk to Spade. Spade greets them at the door but refuses to let them in. The officers say they know Spade was having an affair with Archer's wife; just as they are about to leave, they hear Cairo screaming for help. They force their way into Spade's apartment, but Spade invents a story about how Cairo and O'Shaughnessy were merely play-acting. The officers seem to accept, if not believe, Spade's story, but they take Cairo with them down to the station for some "grilling." Spade then tries to get more information from O'Shaughnessy, but she sleeps with him rather than tell him anything.
The next morning, Spade makes his way to the hotel where Cairo is staying. Cairo shows up disheveled, saying that he was held in police custody through the night. Meanwhile, Spade notices that he's being tailed by a kid named Wilmer Cook. He eventually confronts the gunsel[1], and tells him that both he and his boss, "G," will have to deal with him at some point. He later receives a call from Casper Gutman, who wishes to meet with him. Gutman, a grossly obese man, says he will pay handsomely for the black bird. Spade bluffs, implying that he can get the item, but wants to know what it is first.
Gutman tells him that the figurine was a gift from the island of Malta to the King of Spain a few hundred years ago, but was lost on ship in transit. It was covered with fine jewels, but acquired a layer of black enamel at some time to conceal its value (estimated to be in the millions). Gutman learned of its whereabouts seventeen years ago, and has been looking for it ever since. He traced it to the home of the Russian general Kemidov, then sent three of his "agents" (Cairo, Thursby and O'Shaughnessy) to retrieve it. The latter pair supposedly did steal the figurine, but learned of its value and decided to keep it for themselves. Spade starts to get dizzy at this point (Gutman has drugged him), and when he goes to leave, Wilmer trips him and knocks him out by kicking his temple.
When Spade awakens, he returns to his office and tells the story of the Maltese Falcon to Effie. Soon afterwards, an injured man, identified as Captain Jacobi of "La Paloma," shows up at the office; he drops a package on the floor and then dies from his gunshot wounds. Spade opens the package, and finds the figurine falcon. Spade is called away from the office. To prevent losing the item, Spade stores the package at a bus station lost luggage counter and mails himself the collection tag. He first goes to the dock where "La Paloma" was anchored, but learns that a fire had been started on board. He then proceeds to the place Rhea Gutman said she was when she phoned earlier. There he finds a drugged-up, seventeen-year old girl, her stomach all scratched up by a pin in her attempt to keep herself awake. She just manages to give him some information about the whereabouts of Brigid, which turns out to be a false lead.
When he arrives back at his apartment, he finds O'Shaughnessy in a shadowy doorway. Inside, Wilmer, Cairo, and Gutman are there waiting. Gutman hands Spade $10,000 in cash in exchange for the bird. Spade takes the money, but in addition says that they need a "fall guy" to take the blame for the murders of at least Thursby and Jacobi, if not Archer as well. Reluctantly, both Cairo and Gutman agree to make Wilmer the fall guy. Gutman proceeds to tell Spade the missing pieces of the story. The night that Thursby was killed, he was first approached by Wilmer and Gutman. The latter attempted to reason with him, but Thursby remained loyal to O'Shaughnessy and refused to cooperate. Later things escalated, then Wilmer shot Thursby. Also, O'Shaughnessy had seduced Captain Jacobi and hid the Falcon with him. Later, O'Shaughnessy instructed Jacobi to deliver the package to Spade. Once Gutman learned of this fact, he attempted to remove Spade from the situation with the spiked drink. Wilmer managed to shoot the captain, but Jacobi still got to Spade's office to deliver the figurine. After finishing his story, Gutman warns Spade to be very careful with O'Shaughnessy as she is not to be trusted.
Spade places a call to his secretary Effie and asks her to go the office and pick up the figurine. Effie brings it to Spade's apartment, and Spade hands the package to Gutman, who is overwhelmed with excitement. He checks the figurine, but quickly learns that it is a fake. He realizes with dismay that the Russian must have discovered the true value of the falcon and made a copy. During this time, Wilmer manages to escape from Spade's apartment. Gutman quickly regains composure, and decides to go back to Europe to continue the search. Before he leaves, Gutman asks Spade for the $10,000. Spade returns $9,000, saying he's keeping the remainder for his time and expenses. Then Cairo and Gutman leave Spade's apartment.
Immediately after Cairo and Gutman leave, Spade phones the police department and tells them the entire story. Wilmer killed Jacobi and Thursby. He also tells them what hotel Gutman is staying at and urges them to hurry, since Gutman and Cairo are leaving town soon. Afterwards, Spade angrily asks O'Shaughnessy why she killed Archer. At first, O'Shaughnessy acts horrified at this accusation, but seeing that she cannot lie anymore, she drops the act. She wanted to get Thursby out of the picture so that she could have the falcon for herself, so she hired Archer to scare him off. When Thursby didn't leave, she killed Archer and attempted to pin the crime on Thursby. When Thursby himself was later killed, she knew that Gutman was in town and that she needed another protector, so she came back to Spade.
However, she says that she's also in love with Spade and would have come back to him anyhow. Spade coldly replies that the penalty for murder is most likely twenty years, and he'll wait for her until she gets out. If they hang her, Spade says that he'll always remember her. He goes on to say that while he despised Archer, the man was his partner, and that he's going to turn her in to the police for his murder as that was a line he could not cross in the industry of detective work. O'Shaughnessy begs him not to, but he replies that he has no choice. When the police get Gutman, Gutman will finger Spade and O'Shaughnessy as accomplices. Thus the only way Spade can avoid getting charged is to say he played both sides against each other. He tells O'Shaughnessy that he has some feelings for her, but that he simply can't trust her. When the police finally show up at Spade's apartment, Spade immediately turns over O'Shaughnessy as Archer's killer. They tell Spade that Wilmer was waiting for Gutman at the hotel and shot him when he arrived. Spade also hands over the $1,000 bill and the falcon to the police as evidence.
Later, when Spade arrives back at the office, he tells Effie the entire story. She is disgusted by his actions, and asks him not to touch her. The novel ends when Archer's widow Iva again shows up at the office.
Review: The Private Eye (like the Old West gunslinger before him) is a quintessential American hero. A lone man, bound by an incorruptible personal code of morals, who gets drawn into tangled situations where only he can restore order. As the archetypal P.I. novel then, The Maltese Falcon owns a special place in American Literature. My favorite character was Kasper Gutman.
Opening Line: “Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.”
Closing Line: “Yes,” he said and shivered. “Well, send her in.”
Quotes: “By Gad, sir, you are a character. There's never any telling what you'll say or do next, except that it's bound to be something astonishing.”
Rating: Okay.

317. World’s End – T. Coraghessan Boyle

History: Published in 1987, it is the winner of the 1988 PEN/Faulkner Award for American Fiction.
Plot: The novel is essentially about Walter Van Brunt, a twenty something year old, after a night of partying, seeing ghosts of his parents and ancestors, and getting in an accident in which he lost his foot. Boyle calls it a “collision with history.” And we are thrown back to the 17th century when the Dutch first settled the Hudson River Valley, the haunted lands of Nysen’s Roost, and the Indians who lived there way before the greedy Dutch Patroon, the Patriarch of the Van Wart Family, settled there. The book explores the relationships between families, Indians, land disputes, and ancient conflicts that were never resolved, and still exist during Walter’s time.
Walter’s father, Truman, betrayed his friends and family to the Van Wart “Vader”, Depeyster, and left town in shame and bitterness. Walter is trying not to be like his father, but ends up doing the same. Cheating on his wife with Mardi VanWart, getting in another accident and losing his other foot, going to work for Depeyster, and eventually finding his father in Alaska, who gives him his side of the story, tells him the ancient family rivalry, and that betrayal is in his blood.
In the end, Walter is like his father, he sinks the beloved boat of his best friend that was to be the icon for peace and happiness with the liberals, the hippies. He freezes to death after getting stuck in a snow drift.
Worlds End is the deepest part of the Hudson River, in which ships have sunk and never been recovered.
Review: I really loved this book. The idea that our conflicts within ourselves is “in the blood” is very interesting to me. The novel is really about Walter's search for his mysteriously missing black sheep of a father, Truman - an enigma till the end - and as he drives himself and others crazy discovering his past and how the histories of three feuding clans are inextricably bound by blood, hatred and deceit, he comes face to face with the shocking truth that in three hundred years, nothing changes and humanity is powerless against the forces that threaten to engulf them.
Opening Line: “On the day he lost his right foot, Walter Van Brunt had been haunted, however haphazardly, by ghosts of the past.”
Closing Line: “After his father.”
Quotes: “Cows calved and goats kidded, the earth spread its legs to receive the annual offering of seed, crops grew tall through the mellow months of summer and fell to scythe and mathook in the fall.”
Rating: Absolutely superb!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

316. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe

History: Published in 1852, the novel had a profound effect on attitudes toward African Americans and slavery in the United States, so much in the latter case that the novel intensified the sectional conflict leading to the American Civil War. The sentimental novel depicts the reality of slavery while also asserting that Christian love can overcome something as destructive as enslavement of fellow human beings. Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, and the second best-selling book of that century.
Plot: The book opens with a Kentucky farmer named Arthur Shelby facing the loss of his farm because of debts. Even though he and his wife, Emily Shelby, believe that they have a benevolent relationship with their slaves, Shelby decides to raise the needed funds by selling two of them—Uncle Tom, a middle-aged man with a wife and children, and Harry, the son of Emily Shelby’s maid Eliza—to a slave trader. Emily Shelby hates the idea of doing this because she had promised her maid that her child would never be sold; Emily's son, George Shelby, hates to see Tom go because he sees the man as his friend and mentor.
When Eliza overhears Mr. and Mrs. Shelby discussing plans to sell Tom and Harry, Eliza determines to run away with her son. The novel states that Eliza made this decision because she fears losing her only surviving child (she had already miscarried two children). Eliza departs that night, leaving a note of apology to her mistress.
While all of this is happening, Uncle Tom is sold and placed on a riverboat, which sets sail down the Mississippi River. While on board, Tom meets and befriends a young white girl named Eva. When Eva falls into the river, Tom saves her. In gratitude, Eva's father, Augustine St. Clare, buys Tom from the slave trader and takes him with the family to their home in New Orleans. During this time, Tom and Eva begin to relate to one another because of the deep Christian faith they both share.
During Eliza's escape, she meets up with her husband George Harris, who had run away previously. They decide to attempt to reach Canada. However, they are now being tracked by a slave hunter named Tom Loker. Eventually Loker and his men trap Eliza and her family, causing George to shoot Loker. Worried that Loker may die, Eliza convinces George to bring the slave hunter to a nearby Quaker settlement for medical treatment.
Back in New Orleans, St. Clare debates slavery with his Northern cousin Ophelia who, while opposing slavery, is prejudiced against black people. St. Clare, however, believes he is not biased, even though he is a slave owner. In an attempt to show Ophelia that her views on blacks are wrong, St. Clare purchases Topsy, a young black slave. St. Clare then asks Ophelia to educate her.
After Tom has lived with the St. Clares for two years, Eva grows very ill. Before she dies she experiences a vision of heaven, which she shares with the people around her. As a result of her death and vision, the other characters resolve to change their lives, with Ophelia promising to throw off her personal prejudices against blacks, Topsy saying she will better herself, and St. Clare pledging to free Uncle Tom.
Before St. Clare can follow through on his pledge, however, he dies after being stabbed while entering a New Orleans tavern. His wife reneges on her late husband's vow and sells Tom at auction to a vicious plantation owner named Simon Legree. Legree (a transplanted northerner) takes Tom to rural Louisiana, where Tom meets Legree's other slaves, including Emmeline (whom Legree purchased at the same time). Legree begins to hate Tom when Tom refuses Legree's order to whip his fellow slave. Legree beats Tom viciously, and resolves to crush his new slave's faith in God. Despite Legree's cruelty, however, Tom refuses to stop reading his Bible and comforting the other slaves as best he can. While at the plantation, Tom meets Cassy, another of Legree's slaves. Cassy was previously separated from her son and daughter when they were sold; unable to endure the pain of seeing another child sold, she killed her third child.
At this point Tom Loker returns to the story. Loker has changed as the result of being healed by the Quakers. George, Eliza, and Harry have also obtained their freedom after crossing into Canada. In Louisiana, Uncle Tom almost succumbs to hopelessness, as his faith in God is tested by the hardships of the plantation. However, he has two visions, one of Jesus and one of Eva, which renew his resolve to remain a faithful Christian, even unto death. He encourages Cassy to escape, which she does, taking Emmeline with her. When Tom refuses to tell Legree where Cassy and Emmeline have gone, Legree orders his overseers to kill Tom. As Tom is dying, he forgives the overseers who savagely beat him. Humbled by the character of the man they have killed, both men become Christians. Very shortly before Tom's death, George Shelby (Arthur Shelby's son) arrives to buy Tom’s freedom, but finds he is too late.
On their boat ride to freedom, Cassy and Emmeline meet George Harris' sister and accompany her to Canada. Once there, Cassy discovers that Eliza is her long-lost daughter who was sold as a child. Now that their family is together again, they travel to France and eventually Liberia, the African nation created for former American slaves. There they meet Cassy's long-lost son. George Shelby returns to the Kentucky farm and frees all his slaves. George tells them to remember Tom's sacrifice and his belief in the true meaning of Christianity.
Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin is written in the sentimental and melodramatic style common to 19th century sentimental novels and domestic fiction (also called women's fiction). These genres were the most popular novels of Stowe's time and tended to feature female main characters and a writing style which evoked a reader's sympathy and emotion. Even though Stowe's novel differs from other sentimental novels by focusing on a large theme like slavery and by having a man as the main character, she still set out to elicit certain strong feelings from her readers (such as making them cry at the death of Little Eva). The power in this type of writing can be seen in the reaction of contemporary readers. Georgiana May, a friend of Stowe's, wrote a letter to the author stating that "I was up last night long after one o'clock, reading and finishing Uncle Tom's Cabin. I could not leave it any more than I could have left a dying child." Another reader is described as obsessing on the book at all hours and having considered renaming her daughter Eva. Evidently the death of Little Eva affected a lot of people at that time, because in 1852 alone 300 baby girls in Boston were given that name.
Despite this positive reaction from readers, for decades literary critics dismissed the style found in Uncle Tom's Cabin and other sentimental novels because these books were written by women and so prominently featured "women's sloppy emotions." One literary critic said that had the novel not been about slavery, "it would be just another sentimental novel," while another described the book as "primarily a derivative piece of hack work." In The Literary History of the United States, George F. Whicher called Uncle Tom's Cabin "Sunday-school fiction", full of "broadly conceived melodrama, humor, and pathos." Uncle Tom's Cabin has exerted an influence equaled by few other novels in history. Upon publication, Uncle Tom's Cabin ignited a firestorm of protest from defenders of slavery (who created a number of books in response to the novel) while the book elicited praise from abolitionists. As a best-seller, the novel heavily influenced later protest literature. Immediately upon publication, Uncle Tom's Cabin outraged people in the American South. The novel was also roundly criticized by slavery supporters.
Opening Line: “Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P===, in Kentucky.”
Closing Line: “Think of your freedom, every time you see UNCLE TOM'S CABIN; and let it be a memorial to put you all in mind to follow in his steps, and be honest and faithful and Christian as he was."
Quotes: "I looks like gwine to heaven, an't thar where white folks is gwine? S'pose they'd have me thar? I'd rather go to torment, and get away from Mas'r and Missis. I had so."
"We don't own your laws; we don't own your country; we stand here as free, under God's sky, as you are; and, by the great God that made us, we'll fight for our liberty till we die."
Rating: Important, but sentimental and sappy.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

315. Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler

History: This book was written in 1940. It was made into a movie three times.
Plot: A chance encounter with hulking ex-con Moose Malloy on Los Angeles' Central Avenue, the part that is "not yet all negro", gets Marlowe into all kinds of trouble. Just released from prison, Malloy is looking for his one-time girlfriend, red-haired Velma, whom he last saw eight years ago. The nightclub where she used to sing, Florian's, is now a black "dine and dice emporium", and no one there has ever heard of her. Malloy flees after casually killing the black boss of the club, and Marlowe, the only white witness to Malloy's mayhem, is asked by a detective on the case, Nulty, to look for Velma. He learns the address of Florian's widow and visits her, a drunken middle-aged floozy. The widow tells him, unconvincingly, that Velma Valento is dead.
Later that afternoon, Marlowe is hired by Lindsay Marriott to assist in handing over an $8,000 ransom for a rare jade necklace owned by a woman friend of Marriott's. However, at the isolated meeting point—a lonely canyon in the middle of the night—Marlowe is knocked out. When Marlowe comes to, he chances upon a passerby, Anne Riordan, who has found Marriott murdered. Anne takes some marijuana cigarettes off Marriott before Marlowe contacts the police. Later, Anne gives the cigarettes to Marlowe. With Anne's help Marlowe learns that the owner of the necklace is a Mrs. Grayle. Marlowe visits Mrs. Grayle, a beautiful blonde married to an elderly millionaire, who backs up Marriott's story that she was robbed of the necklace.
Suspicious of Marriott's joints, Marlowe cuts one open and finds the business card of one "Jules Amthor", "Psychic Consultant". Marlowe also learns that the title to the house of Florian's widow was in Marriott's name. Marlowe meets Amthor at the latter's "modernistic" hilltop home. There, Marlowe is beaten up with the help of crooked policemen. Later removed to a "sanitorium", Marlowe is shot full of dope but manages to escape. With a policeman, Marlowe finds Florian's widow murdered in her house. Marlowe makes it to a gambling ship off the coast where he attempts to get word to Malloy that he has information for him.
Marlowe lands back at his Hollywood apartment, takes a nap and awakes to find the Moose there. Mrs. Grayle then arrives while Malloy hides. Mrs. Grayle and Marlowe talk and it becomes clear that Velma and Mrs. Grayle are the same person. It is revealed that after realizing her new identity was in jeopardy from Marlowe's inquiries she was anxious to stop his investigation. It is implied that she killed Marriott because he wouldn't go through with Marlowe's murder at the isolated rendezvous. When she comes face to face with Malloy, she kills him and flees. At the end of the novel, Marlowe relates that she commits suicide in Baltimore after her true identity is found out by police there.
Review: I couldn’t finish this one. I didn’t like the setting, seems too racially divided. I am not a fan of detective stories anyway, and this one just didn’t come across as remotely exciting.
Opening Line: “It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that weren’t all Negro.”
Closing Line: “It was a cool day, and very clear; you could see a long way, but not as far as Velma had gone.”
Quotes: "His smile was as cunning as a broken mousetrap."
Rating: Not good.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

314. Celestial Harmonies – Peter Esterhazy

History: This book was published in 2000. Peter Esterházy, the scion of an aristocratic family that traces its roots to the 12th century. The Esterházys, one of Europe's most prominent aristocratic families, are closely linked to the rise and fall of the Hapsburg Empire.
Much of Book One is based directly upon Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father, a fact acknowledged by Esterházy in his afterword. (Although it is instructive that Barthelme recognized the merit of brevity in his works.) James Joyce is another inspiration; and in her introduction, the translator Judith Sollosy asserts that resemblances between Celestial Harmonies and Finnegans Wake may not be coincidental. Brushing aside the coy phrasing of this claim, we do find some similarities. The father – or fathers, as Esterházy sometimes stipulates – are “human, erring and condonable,” like Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Time, larded with an indigestible amount of history and other matter, is slippery. Literary allusions are plentiful. However, while Esterházy and Joyce are both witty, if obscure, guides to their respective jungles, Esterházy lacks the verbal felicities that make Finnegans Wake so enjoyable. The best reading strategy is to read each section for its own sake, letting connections arise as they may, and allowing the contradictions to fight it out on their own.
Plot: Esterházy divides Celestial Harmonies into two parts. Book One is subtitled “Numbered Sentences from the Lives of the Esterházy Family.” Related in a fragmentary style that avoids sequential narration, it is composed of 371 numbered sections. Some sections are several pages long, and some consist of a single sentence. The differences in length contribute variety to what would otherwise be indistinguishable chaos. The outlines are vague. The time of any given incident can be the present or the past. The narrator is the only fixed point; but except for his role as a son, Esterházy does not permit us the security of knowing whose son or which son he is. Over several hundred years and many generations, there is only the son and the father.
Book Two, or “Confessions of an Esterházy Family,” has a narrower focus and a more conventional structure than the previous part. Still, the relief that the reader might expect from part two is not complete. Although Esterházy now presents specific characters engaged with definite events, the narrative wanders as it wishes, taking some time to settle down into a chronological sequence. If Book One suggested Finnegans Wake, the opening of Book Two suggests Tristram Shandy. At least Esterházy is merciful enough to divide the text into chapters.
The occupation of Hungary by communists provides the background to what is largely an autobiographical story. The first Hungarian encounter with communism took place after the First World War, with the short-lived regime of Bela Kun. This context permits delineation of the older generation of the Esterházy family, including Peter’s father, Matyas Esterházy. But it is the second encounter with communism, after World War II, that provides the bulk of this part. Although the characters are presented in a gestural manner, we can see clearly the development of the leading character – the author – and his family. The vicissitudes of their life under tyranny are a vivid parable of contemporary life and of the shadow that we all to some degree experience.
The use of the previous part in this latter half is interesting, and much of Book One resurfaces in the form of quotations or echoes. The effect is startling – like a successfully executed piece of magic. And the more specific narration draws heavily on the exoticism of middle Europe. This section of the world, near us (or near Western Europe, at any rate) possesses its own rhythms and postures. A message filtered through the bizarre world of Hungary thus reaches us with enhanced impact.
Review: I really liked Book Two, which to me was a portrayal of a family who has been stripped of all the glitter and fame of royalty, but is still retaining a sense of unity and history. We see the strain of this loss as it is reflected on his father’s alcoholism, his parents marriage, the loss of the infant, and his dying grandparents all told through a child's perspective. I also enjoyed learning a bit of history, family stories that you never hear in history classes, very well written with a sense of comedy. However, I did not read Book One past page 30, it was nonsensical to me, meaningless, and I wonder what Esterhazy was doing when he wrote that part.
Opening Line: “It is deucedly difficult to tell a lie when you don’t know the truth.”
Closing Line: “You understand fuck-up, don’t you son?”
Quotes: “But what was this thing that went beyond fatigue and exhaustion, what this crushing defeat of the body, the feeling that there is nothing but the body, and that you’re one with your body, your pain, your despair, what is this?
“It’s called work” Aunt Rozi said to the kitchen stove.”
“Oh the intricate web of relationships that confronts you already at the moment of your birth! Being a father, a mother, a child, how complex it all is, what a baffling structure a family is, cosseting and nakedness, security and vulnerability, its ebb and flow, give and take, stroke and slap.”
Rating: Book One – Bad. Book Two – Excellent.

313. Libra – Don DeLillo

History: Published in 1988, this book is a portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Plot: The book begins by centering on Lee Harvey Oswald, his mother and his childhood. He doesn’t do well in school, skips a lot, and his mother struggles to maintain the household, moving frequently. As a teenager, hhe meets David Ferrie, buys a gun from him. He begins his self education - he reads and studys Marxism.
We follow his journey as he serves in the brutal American military, serves in a military prison. He defects to the Soviet Union and works in a dreary factory, where his potential for greatness remains undernourished. He tells the Russians what little he knows about the U-2 spy plane; shortly afterward, U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down, and Oswald is called to identify him. He’s uncertain if the man is actually Powers, but once Oswald has served his purpose he’s shipped back to the factory. Disillusioned, he returns to the U.S., where his discharge from the Marines has been changed to dishonorable.
He marries a Russian girl, Marina. He beats her regularly. They struggle and they are very poor. They have a child, a girl.
The FBI nags him; his wife laments Mother Russia; his boss fires him for incompetence. He attempts to enter Cuba via Mexico, but he’s refused at the Cuban Embassy. Eventually, he runs out of places to turn.
Intermixed with the telling of Oswald’s struggles, Libra also considers the men who might have been involved in the plot to kill a president, moving inside the heads of George de Mohrenschildt, crime lord Carmine Latta, Jack Ruby, Agency spook T.J. Mackey and most stunningly David Ferrie, the odd hairless man somehow always at the center of everything. Ferrie was a man who might have been famously eccentric on his own, what with his rare disease that rendered him completely hairless, and resultant crazy wigs and glued on eyebrows, and pilot's uniforms, and open homosexuality, and links to crime figures, gunrunners, and other figures not normally given to mingling with openly gay wig-wearing hairless men.
In the end, it is determined that Oswald was a patsy, that the CIA really did not want to kill the President, but wanted to miss him and blame the assignation attempt on Cuba, to start a war with Cuba.
Jack Ruby kills Oswald, and dies of cancer in 1967.
Review: Since there is so much information and misinformation and just plain false information about the man who never reached 30, someone who tries to write about him, fictionally, without lapsing into chaos takes special talent. Delillo paints a character who inspires at least a level of respect for his convictions. This is no apology and no indictment of Lee Harvey Oswald, it is a character study that is careful not to make bold conclusions but just present enough information for the reader to do this her/himself. Libra manages to get into Oswald's head and yet leave him a mystery because DeLillo knows the degree to which some men are enigmas even to themselves. Libra assumes a conspiracy. In order for the story to be a page turner, it has to assume that, or it would be boring and about a third as long. And, we need not forget, that the novel is found in the fiction section of bookstores and libraries. I really like the way DeLillo consistently writes and describes.
Opening Line: “This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track.”
Closing Line: “It belonged to her now, and to history.”
Quotes: “If we are on the outside, we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme. Silent nameless men with unadorned hearts. A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It’s the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us. We are the flawed ones, the innocents, trying to make some rough sense of the daily jostle. Conspirators have a logic and a daring beyond our reach. All conspiracies are the same taut story of men who find coherence in some criminal act."
Rating: Good.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

312. The Stone Diaries – Carol Shields

History: Published in 1993, it won the 1993 Governor General's Award for English language fiction in Canada and the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the United States.
Plot: This book chronicles the life of Daisy Goodwill Flett, in decade separated increments. Her mother dies in childbirth, and she is raised by her neighbor, Clarentine Flett, who leaves her husband to live with her son, Barker, a scholar in botany. When she is eleven, Clarentine is fatally injured by a motorcyclist in an accident, and Daisy goes to live with her father, who is now a successful businessman in Indiana. After a decade passes, she marries a handsome alcoholic. On their honeymoon in France, he is drunk and falls out of the window. Daisy, a widow that never consummated the marriage, returns home to live with her father for the next ten years. Then she decides to take a trip back to Canada, to see Barker Flett. They were attracted to each other before, but now fall in love. We see her after ten more years, they have three children, and Daisy is very happy. Ten years later Barker has died, and Daisy begins her career as a writer of gardening tips and botany in publication. However she loses this job and falls into a deep depression, in which she spends months in her room crying. Then we see Daisy in her retirement, in Florida, keeping busy with friends, gardening, crafts. She visits the Orkneys, in which Barker Flett’s father lives still in a nursing home. Some years later, Daisy suffers a succession of health failures, and dies. Her family is at her side.
Review: Shields has a way of addressing her character's inner realities with lyrical affection and quiet irony. Because the story is told from many points of view over time, we are offered a complex, historical understanding of Daisy's life.
As the title suggests, stone is a significant and haunting image in the book, often conjuring up images of death or the inability to lend full expression or consciousness to life. After Daisy's mother (who was named Mercy Stone Goodwill) dies in childbirth, her father, Cuyler Goodwill, builds a monumental tower of stones beside her mother's grave. The sculpture becomes something of a tourist attraction. Obsessed with engraving stones both at work and after work, he forgets he is a father "for days at a time." And later, when Daisy is approaching death, it is not surprising that she thinks of stone.
At her death, Shields uses a wry mixture of hearsay, bits of conversation, recipes, check-lists, names of places Daisy has lived and books she has on her shelf, as well as funeral excerpts, ingeniously suggesting the ways in which we protect ourselves from the emotions of loss by tending to surrounding distractions.
This novel deftly explores the limits of autobiography, lucidly showing us that a life is never what it seems on the surface, even to the person experiencing it.
Opening Line: “My mother’s name was Mercy Goodwill.”
Closing Line: “Someone should have thought of daisys. Yes. Ah well.”
Quotes: “The real troubles in this world tend to settle on the misalignment between men and women – that’s my opinion, my humble opinion, as long ago learned to say.”
Rating: Excellent.

Friday, January 1, 2010

311. The Golden Ass - Lucius Apuleius

History: This is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety. It is also the only surviving work of literature from the ancient Greco-Roman world to examine, from a first-hand perspective, the abhorrent condition of the lower classes.
Plot: The prologue establishes an audience and a speaker, who defines himself by location, education, and occupation. The narrator journeys to Thessaly on business. On the way, he runs into Aristomenes and an unnamed traveler. Aristomenes’ tale begins with him going on business for cheese and he runs into his friend Socrates, who is disheveled and emaciated. Aristomenes clothes Socrates and takes him to the bathhouse. Aristomenes berates Socrates for leaving his family. While they’re eating lunch, Socrates tells about his affair with Meroë. Socrates tells Aristomenes that Meroë is an ugly witch who turns her ex-lovers into rather unfortunate animals. Aristomenes doesn’t believe Socrates’ tale but is nevertheless afraid. Aristomenes barricades the door and they both go to bed. In the middle of the night, Meroë and Panthia break in, cut open Socrates, drain his blood, rip out his heart, and replace it with a sponge. Before leaving, they urinate on Aristomenes. The witches spare Aristomenes because they want him to bury Socrates in the land. Aristomenes fears that he will be blamed for the death of his friend and attempts to hang himself, but is comically stopped when the rope is revealed to be too rotten to support his weight. In the morning, Socrates wakes up and everything seems to be normal. They continue travelling and reach a stream, where Socrates bends to take a drink, which causes the sponge to fall out and him to die. Aristomenes buries Socrates in the ground, and then proceeds on his way. The narrator believes Aristomenes’ tale and becomes more eager to learn about magic. The narrator arrives at Hypata, where he stays with Milo, a family friend and miser, and his wife Pamphile. Photis, Milo’s servant, takes the narrator to the baths, after which the narrator goes to the marketplace. There, he buys some fish and runs into his old friend Pytheas, who is now a magistrate. Pytheas reveals the narrator’s name as Lucius. Pytheas says that Lucius overpaid for the fish and humiliates the fish-monger by trampling on the fish. Lucius returns to Milo’s house, hungry and empty-handed. Milo asks Lucius about his life, his friends, and his wanderings. Lucius goes to sleep hungry.
The next morning, Lucius meets his aunt Byrrhena in the town, and she warns him that Milo's wife is an evil witch who will kill Lucius. Lucius, however, is interested in becoming a witch himself. He then returns to Milo's house, where he repeatedly makes love to the slave-girl Fotis. The next day, Lucius goes to his aunt's home for dinner, and there meets Thelyphron, who relates the tale of how witches cut off his nose and ears. After the meal, Lucius drunkenly returns to Milo's house in the dark, where he encounters three robbers, whom he soon slays before retiring to bed.
The next morning, Lucius is abruptly awoken and arrested for the murder of the three men. He is taken to court where he is laughed at constantly and witnesses are brought against him. They are just about to announce his guilt when the widow demands to bring out the dead bodies; but when the three bodies of the murdered men are revealed, they have miraculously transformed into bladders. It then turns out that it was a prank played by the town upon Lucius. Later that day, Lucius and Fotis watch Milo's wife perform her witchcraft and transform herself into a bird. Attempting to copy her, Lucius accidentally turns himself into an ass, at which point Fotis tells him that the only way for him to return to his human state is to eat a rose.
Lucius the ass trots over to a garden to munch on a rose when he is beaten by the gardener and chased by dogs. He is then stolen from Milo's house by thieves, who talk about how their leader Thrasileon has been killed while dressed as a bear. The thieves then kidnap a young woman, Charites, who is housed in a cave with Lucius the ass. Charites starts crying, so an elderly woman who is in league with the thieves begins to tell her the story of Cupid and Psyche.
The elderly woman continues telling the story of Cupid and Psyche. Psyche is the most beautiful woman on earth, and Venus' jealously arranges for Psyche's destruction. Cupid, Venus's son, secretly preserves Psyche; Cupid becomes Psyche's anonymous lover. Psyche's jealous sisters arouse her curiosity and fear; Psyche, against Cupid's commands, looks at him; Cupid abandons Psyche, who wanders in search of him.
The elderly woman finishes telling the story of Cupid and Psyche. Lucius the ass and Charites escape from the cave but they are caught by the thieves, and sentenced to death.
A man appears to the thieves and announces that he is the renowned thief Haemus the Thracian, who suggests that they should not kill the captives but sell them. Haemus later reveals himself secretly to Charites as her fiancé Lepolemus, and drugs all of the thieves. When they are asleep he slays them all. Lepolemus, Charites and Lucius the ass safely escape back to the town. Once there, the ass is entrusted to a horrid boy who torments him but the boy is later killed by a bear. Enraged, the boy's mother plans to kill the ass.
A man arrives at the mother's house and announces that Lepolemus and Charites are dead, caused by the scheming of the evil Thrasillus who wants Charites to marry him. After hearing the news of their master's death, the slaves run away, taking the ass Lucius with them. The large group of traveling slaves is mistaken for a band of robbers and attacked by farmhands of a rich estate. Several other misfortunes befall the travelers until they reach a village. Lucius as the narrator often digresses from the plot in order to recount several scandal-filled stories that he learns of during his journey. Lucius is eventually sold to a catamite priest. He is entrusted with carrying the statue of a goddess on his back while he follows around the group of sinful priests. While engaging in lewd activity with a local boy, the group of priests is discovered by a man in search of a stolen ass who mistakes Lucius' braying for that of his own animal. The priests flee to a new city where they are well received by one of its chief citizens. They are preparing to dine when his cook realizes that the meat that was to be served was stolen by a dog. The cook, at the suggestion of his wife, prepares to kill Lucius in order to serve his meat instead.
\Lucius' untimely escape from the cook coincides with an attack by rabid dogs, and his wild behavior is attributed to their viral bites. The men barricade him in a room until it is decided that he is no longer infected. The band of priests packs up and moves out. The narrative is interrupted by The Tale of the Wife's Tub. After the arrest of the priests Lucius is sold into labor, driving a baker's mill-wheel. Lucius, though bemoaning his labor as an ass, also realizes that this state has allowed him to hear many novel things with his long ass-ears. The Tale of the Jealous Husband and The Tale of the Fuller's Wife mark a break in the narrative. The theme of the two intervening stories is adultery, and the text appropriately follows with the adultery of the baker's wife and the subsequent murder of the baker. Lucius the ass is then auctioned off to a farmer. The Tale of the Oppressive Landlord is here told. The farmer duly assaults a legionary who makes advances on his ass (Lucius), but he is found out and jailed.
Lucius comes into the legionary's possession, and after lodging with a decurion Lucius recounts The Tale of the Wicked Stepmother. He is then sold to two brothers, a confectioner and a cook, who treated him kindly. When they would go out Lucius would secretly eat his fill of their food. At first a source of vexation, when the ass was discovered to be the one behind the disappearing food it was much laughed at and celebrated. Again he was sold, and he was taught many amusing tricks. Rumor spread, and great fame came to the ass and his master. As it happened, a woman was so enamored of the sideshow ass that she paid off his keeper and took him to bed with her. The Tale of the Jealous Wife is aired. The murderess depicted in this tale is precisely she whom Lucius is made to mate with at the Shows. After an enactment of the judgment of Paris and a brief but important digression, the time comes for Lucius to make his much awaited appearance. At the last moment he decides against this, fearing for his life, and he runs away to Cenchreae eventually to nap on the beach.
Lucius wakes up in a panic during the first watch of the night. Considering Fate to be done tormenting him, he takes the opportunity to purify himself by seven consecutive immersions in the sea. He then offers a prayer to the Queen of Heaven, for his return to human form, citing all the various names the Goddess is known by to people everywhere (Venus, Ceres, Paphos, Proserpine, etc.). The Queen of Heaven appears in a vision to him and explains to him how he can be returned to human form by eating the crown of roses that will be held by one of her priests during a religious procession the following day. In return for his redemption, Lucius is expected to be initiated into Isis’ priesthood (Isis being the Queen of Heaven’s true name, according to her). Lucius follows her instructions and is returned to human form and, at length, initiated into her priesthood. Lucius is then sent to his ancestral home, Rome, where he continues to worship Isis, under the local name, Campensis. After a time, he is visited once more by the Goddess who speaks again of mysteries and holy rites which Lucius comes to understand as a command to be initiated into the cult of Isis. He does so. Shortly afterwards, he receives a third vision. Though he is confused, the God appears to him and reassures him that he is much blessed and that he is to become once more initiated that he might supplicate in Rome as well. The story concludes with the Goddess, Isis, appearing to Lucius and declaring that Lucius shall rise to a prominent position in the legal profession and that he shall be appointed to the College of Pastophori that he might serve Osiris and Isis’ mysteries. Lucius is so happy that he goes about freely exposing his bald head.
Review: The transformation of man into ass provides a well-lit stage for the drama of this struggle to play upon; his form of an ass allows the narrator a unique vantagepoint from which he is able to better gather together the threads of the mundane world to weave his fantastic tale. But the story remains that of man and his place in the world. This is not to say that Apuleius was not a believer in magic--he had been initiated into the mysteries of Isis and is reputed to have himself performed miracles necessitating the mastery of magic and sorcery.
Opening Line: As I fortuned to take my voyage into Thessaly, about certaine affaires which I had to doe ( for there myne auncestry by my mothers side inhabiteth, descended of the line of that most excellent person Plutarch, and of Sextus the Philosopher his Nephew, which is to us
a great honour) and after that by much travell and great paine I had passed over the high mountaines and slipperie vallies, and had ridden through the cloggy fallowed fields; perceiving that my horse did wax somewhat slow, and to the intent likewise that I might repose and strengthen my self (being weary with riding) I lighted off my horse, and wiping the sweat from every part of his body, I unbrideled him, and walked him softly in my hand, to the end he might pisse, and ease himself of his weariness and travell: and while he went grazing freshly in the field (casting his head sometimes aside, as a token of rejoycing and gladnesse) I perceived a little before me two companions riding, and so I overtaking them made a third.
Closing Line: After this sort, the divine majesty perswaded me in my sleepe, whereupon by and by I went towards the Priest, and declared all that which I had seene, then I fasted ten dayes according to the custome, and of mine owne proper will I abstained longer then I was commanded: and verely I did nothing repent of the paine which I had taken, and of the charges
which I was at, considering that the divine providence had given me such an order, that I gained much money in pleading of causes: Finally after a few dayes, the great god Osiris appeared to me in the night, not disguised in any other forme, but in his owne essence, commanding me that I should be an Advocate in the court, and not feare the slander and envie of ill persons, which beare me stomacke and grudge by reason of my doctrine, which I had gotten by much labour: moreover, he would not that
I should be any longer of the number of his Priests, but he allotted me to be one of the Decurions and Senatours: and after he appointed me a place within the ancient pallace, which was erected in the time of Silla, where I executed my office in great joy with a shaven Crowne.
Quotes: "For my deforme and Assie face abated, and first the rugged haire of my body fell off, my thick skin waxed soft and
tender, the hooves of my feet changed into toes, my hands returned againe, my neck grew short, my head and mouth began round, my long eares were made little, my great and stonie teeth waxed lesse like the teeth of men, and my tayle which combred me most, appeared no where: then the people began to marvaile, and the religious honoured the goddesse, for so evident a miracle, they wondered at the visions which they saw in the night, and the facilitie of my reformation, whereby they rendered
testimonie of so great a benefit which I received of the goddesse.
Rating: Not good.

310. Notes From Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky

History: Published in 1864, it is considered by many to be the world's first existentialist novel..
Plot: The book consists of an introduction, three main sections and a conclusion. The short introduction propounds a number of riddles whose meanings will be further developed. Chapters two, three and four deal with suffering and the enjoyment of suffering; chapters five and six with intellectual and moral vacillation and with conscious "inertia"-inaction; chapters seven through nine with theories of reason and logic; the last two chapters are a summary and a transition into Part 2.
War is described as people's rebellion against the assumption that everything needs to happen for a purpose, because humans do things without purpose, and this is what determines human history.
Secondly, the narrator's desire for pain and paranoia is exemplified by his liver pain and toothache. The main issue for the Underground Man is that he has reached a point of ennui and inactivity. Unlike most people, who typically act out of revenge because they believe justice is the end, the Underground Man is conscious of his problems, feels the desire for revenge, but he does not find it virtuous; this incongruity leads to spite and spite towards the act itself with its concomitant circumstances. He feels that others like him exist, yet he continuously concentrates on his spitefulness instead of on actions that would avoid the problems he is so concerned with. He even admits at one point that he’d rather be inactive out of laziness.
The first part also gives a harsh criticism of determinism and intellectual attempts at dictating human action and behavior by logic, which the Underground Man mentions in terms of a simple math problem two times two makes four He states that despite humanity’s attempt to create the "Crystal Palace," one cannot avoid the simple fact that anyone at any time can decide to act in a way which might not be considered good, and some will do so simply to validate their existence and to protest and confirm that they exist as individuals. For good as a general term is subjective and in the case of the Underground Man the good here he's ridiculing is enlightened self interest (egoism, selfishness). It is this position being depicted as logical and valid that the novels protaganist despises. Since his romantic embracing of this ideal, he seems to blame for his current base unhappiness. This type of rebellion is critical to later works of Dostoevsky. As this type of rebellion is used by adolescents to validate their own existence, uniqueness and independence. Rebellion in the face of the disfunction, disorder of adult experience, that one inherits under the understanding of tradition and society.
The second part is the actual story proper and consists of three main segments that lead to a furthering of the Underground Man's super-consciousness.
The first is his obsession with an officer who physically moves him out of the way without a word or warning. He sees the officer on the street and thinks of ways to take revenge, eventually deciding to bump into him, which he does, finding to his surprise that the officer does not seem to even notice it happened.
The second segment is a dinner party with some old school friends to wish Zverkov, one of their number, goodbye as he is being transferred out of the city. The underground man hated them when he was younger, but after a random visit to Simonov’s, he decides to meet them at the appointed location. They fail to tell him that the time has been changed to six instead of five, so he arrives early. He gets into an argument with the four after a short time, declaring to all his hatred of society and using them as the symbol of it. At the end, they go off without him to a secret brothel, and, in his rage, the underground man follows them there to confront Zverkov once and for all, regardless if he is beaten or not. He arrives to find Zverkov and company have left, but, it is there that he meets Liza, a young prostitute.
The story cuts to Liza and the underground man lying silently in the dark together. The underground man confronts Liza with an image of her future, by which she is unmoved at first, but, she eventually realizes the plight of her position and how she will slowly become useless and will descend more and more, until she is no longer wanted by anyone. The thought of dying such a terribly disgraceful death brings her to realize her position, and she then finds herself enthralled by the underground man’s seemingly poignant grasp of society’s ills. He gives her his address and leaves. After this, he is overcome by the fear of her actually arriving at his dilapidated apartment, and, in the middle of an argument with his servant, she arrives. He then curses her and takes back everything he said to her, saying he was, in fact, laughing at her and reiterates the truth of her miserable position. Near the end of his painful rage he wells up in tears after saying that he was only seeking to have power over her and a desire to humiliate her. He begins to criticize himself and states that he is in fact horrified by his own poverty and embarrassed by his situation. Liza realizes how pitiful he is and they embrace. The underground man cries out “They – they won’t let me – I – I can’t be good!” After all this, he still acts terribly towards her, and, before she leaves, he stuffs a five ruble note into her hand, which she throws onto the table. He tries to catch her as she goes out onto the street but cannot find her and never hears from her again. He recalls this moment as making him unhappy whenever he thinks of it, yet again proving the fact from the first section that his spite for society and his inability to act like it, makes him unable to act better than it.
Review: Notes From Underground is timeless - it was written in 1864 but is still highly relevant to modern times since the narrator concerns himself with the subject of human psychology.
The first part of the book is a rant, questioning himself as he writes his notes as to whether what he's saying (or trying to say) is quite right. Dostoevsky describes very accurately the psychological games people play - the pecking orders, passive aggression, the subtle behaviors deploying disrespect only visible to the intended target - it's all stuff we suffer through, and worry about, in 2010.
There's a fine line between philosophies that offer insight, and ones that are deep and meaningless. I would put Dostoevsky firmly in the former category. He doesn't mince his words, and this "Underground Man" is likely Dostoevsky himself speaking from the heart.
Opening Line: “I am a sick man… I am an angry man.”
Closing Line: “Devil take the underground!”
Quotes: "....we've reached a point where we regard real "living life" almost as a labor, almost a service, and we all agree in ourselves that it's better from a book. And why do we sometimes fuss about, why these caprices, these demands of ours? We ourselves don't know why. It would be the worse for us if our capricious demands were fulfilled. Go on, try giving us more independence, for example, unbind the hands of any one of us, broaden our range of activity, relax the tutelage, and we... but I assure you: we will immediately beg to be taken back under tutelage."
Rating: Difficult