Friday, February 11, 2011

386. The Satanic Verses – Salmon Rushdie

History: The book was first published in 1988 and inspired in part by the life of Muhammad. The title refers to the so-called "satanic verses", a group of alleged Qur'anic verses that allow intercessory prayers to be made to three Pagan Meccan goddesses.
In the Muslim community, the novel caused great controversy for what many Muslims believed were blasphemous references. As the controversy spread, the book was banned in India and burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom. In mid-February 1989, following a violent riot against the book in Pakistan, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran and a Shi'a Muslim scholar, issued a fatwa calling on all good Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers, or to point him out to those who can kill him if they cannot themselves.
Following the fatwa, Rushdie was put under police protection by the British government. Despite a conciliatory statement by Iran in 1998, and Rushdie's declaration that he would stop living in hiding, the Iranian state news agency reported in 2006 that the fatwa would remain in place permanently since fatwas can only be rescinded by the person who first issued them, and Khomeini had since died.
As of mid 2010 Rushdie has not been physically harmed, but others connected with the book have suffered violent attacks. Hitoshi Igarashi, its Japanese translator, was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991; Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was seriously injured in a stabbing the same month; William Nygaard, the publisher in Norway, barely survived an attempted assassination in Oslo in October 1993, and Aziz Nesin, the Turkish translator, was the intended target in the events that led to the Sivas massacre on 2 July 1993 in Sivas, Turkey, which resulted in the deaths of 37 people. Individual purchasers of the book have not been harmed. However, the only nation with a predominantly Muslim population where the novel remains legal is Turkey.
Plot: The two protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, are both actors of Indian Muslim background. Farishta is a Bollywood superstar who specializes in playing Hindu deities. (The character is partly based on Indian film stars Amitabh Bachchan and Rama Rao.[3]) Chamcha is an emigrant who has broken with his Indian identity and works as a voice over artist in England.
At the beginning of the novel, both are trapped in a hijacked plane during a flight from India to Britain. The plane explodes over the English Channel, but the two are magically saved. In a miraculous transformation, Farishta takes on the personality of the archangel Gibreel, and Chamcha that of a devil.
Farishta begins to develop an angelic halo, while Chamcha metamorphoses into a cloven-hoofed devil complete with horns and bad breath. Both men suffer, in different ways, the brutality and indignity of their transformations in Rushdie's evocation of a tense and brooding London. Ultimately it is the `demonic' Chamcha who finds fulfilment by returning to India, the `angelic' Farishta is not so fortunate. Merging fantasy and reality, Rushdie uses the subversive excesses of `magical realism' to explore the demands of migration and how those demands can destroy the fragile assurances of identity and belonging most of us take for granted. Farishta is haunted by the nightmares of his lost Muslim faith, Chamcha by the impossible dream of reinventing himself as an Englishman. Through these and the experiences of other often outrageously conceived characters, Rushdie reflects on how people suffer, and are made to suffer, for the sake of a little certainty.
After being found on the beach, Chamcha is taken into custody by the police, who suspect him of being an illegal immigrant, while Farishta looks on without intervening.
Both characters struggle to piece their lives back together. Farishta seeks and finds his lost love, the English mountaineer Allie Cone, but their relationship is overshadowed by his mental illness. Chamcha, having miraculously regained his human shape, wants to take revenge on Farishta for having forsaken him after their common fall from the hijacked plane. He does so by fostering Farishta's pathological jealousy and thus destroying his relationship with Allie. In another moment of crisis, Farishta realizes what Chamcha has done, but forgives him and even saves his life.
Both return to India. Farishta, still suffering from his illness, kills Allie in another outbreak of jealousy and then commits suicide. Chamcha, who has found not only forgiveness from Farishta but also reconciliation with his estranged father and his own Indian identity, decides to remain in India.
Review: It is a story of India and Britain, and the inevitable clashes between, brought on by their long, and turbulent history together. It is a story about personal identity, racial identity and religious identity. It is a story of damnation and redemption, love and betrayal, betrayal and forgiveness. His argument is against God's misuse for the purpose of controlling or subjugating people; that submission is not for normal human beings. Normal human beings wrestle with God, have doubts, questions, even anger. "What kind of idea are you?" He asks repeatedly throughout the book. "How do you behave when you are weak?" - Bend, compromise, in order to survive? "How do you behave when you are strong?" Hard, unyielding, pure? or Forgiving and merciful?
But even while all these heavy questions are being considered and discussed, Rushdie never loses his sense of humor.
However, Rushdie repeatedly criticizes, and even ridicules, the Islamic faith, in ways both subtle and overt, throughout this entire book. By issuing his death sentence upon Salman Rushdie's head, Ayatollah Khomeni drew widespread attention and sympathy for a talented writer who might otherwise have gone unnoticed outside his own circle of interest. Khomeni also demonstrated what power mere words could hold over those who rule by the absolutism of ideas.
Opening Line: “To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta, tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”
Closing Line: “I’m coming,” he answered her, and turned away from the view.”
Quotes: "From the beginning men used God to justify the unjustifiable."
Rating: Awful, I just can’t stand Salmon Rushdie.

385. Complicity – Iain Banks

History: This book was published in 1993. Iain Banks is a contemporary author of Scottish background, who manages to write both regular (albeit plot-driven) fiction and science fiction (he adds his middle initial, "M", when writing SF.)
Plot: Its two main characters are Cameron Colley, a self-described Hunter S Thompson journalist on a Scottish newspaper called The Caledonian, which resembles The Scotsman, and a serial murderer whose identity is a mystery. The passages dealing with the journalist are written in the first person, and those dealing with the murderer in the second person, so the novel presents, in alternate chapters, an unusual example of an unreliable narrator. The events take place mostly in and around Edinburgh.
Colley is a "Gonzo journalist" with an amphetamine habit, living in Edinburgh. He also smokes cigarettes and cannabis, drinks copious amounts of alcohol, plays computer games, and has adventurous sex with a married woman, Yvonne. He regrets his addictions and misdemeanours and tries half-heartedly to give them up occasionally, mainly the cigarette addiction.
He reflects on his awful experience of witnessing the aftermath of the massacre at the 'Highway of Death' in the Gulf War, and covers the deployment of HMS Vanguard, Britain's first Trident nuclear missile submarine.
Cameron Colley, tends to write muckraking pieces that expose hypocrisy and moral and ethical bankruptcy on the part of large companies or wealthy people.
He thinks he has a scoop when he receives anonymous phone calls about a series of mysterious deaths. Suddenly he has mysterious deaths of his own to worry about, when an editorial he wrote years before comes back to haunt him. In it, he suggested that certain named capitalist and right-wing public figures would be better hate-figures than the conventional ones of foreign leaders or domestic criminals. It seems someone is killing off the people on his list, one by one. The description of the murders (which are ingeniously sadistic) is done in a fairly detailed manner.
Cameron and the serial killer are headed on a collision course, as the murders seem to implicate Cameron. Under suspicion by the police, Colley finds himself involved doubly in the bizarre murders when the killer is revealed. The killer is actually an old childhood friend, Andy, with whom he had let down two different times during their childhood…once when Andy was five, fell under the ice, and Cameron ran to his parents instead of running to save him. And again when they were teenagers, and Andy was sexually assaulted, and Cameron escaped, however did return to hit the man over the head with a log. Cameron is actually living through this all of this reoccurring to him as he is being questioned by the police. Andy kills two more men for revenge, and escapes, but not before a long dialogue with Cameron about why he did it all.
At the end of the book, Colley is diagnosed with lung cancer. And Andy survives as a refugee in an unknown city.
Review: Iain Banks is a very readable author - he draws deft characters and gives them interesting and realistic dialogue to speak, fills his scenes with plausible details, and despite the unlikable elements of both main characters, gives them enough sympathy that you care about them and drives you to finish the book. The plot is well-written, and the story skillfully alternates between the present Cameron, flashbacks of Cameron's life, and the serial killer.
Opening Line: “You hear the car after an hour and a half.”
Closing Line: “You light a cigarette, shake your head as you look out over the grey-enthroned city, and laugh.”
Quotes: “Not me. I sucked that smoke in and made it part of me, joined mystically with the universe right at that point, said Yes to drugs forever just by the unique hit I got from that one packet of fags Andy liberated from his dad.”
Rating: Okay.

384. The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoevsky

History: This book was first published serially in Russkiy Vestnik (or The Russian Messenger) between 1868 and 1869 at a time when Dostoevsky endured dire financial and emotional difficulties. In an effort to avoid his numerous creditors, Dostoevsky and his wife fled Russia and traveled from city to city in Europe, trying to eke out a humble living. During this gloomy period of poverty, the author suffered a number of serious bouts of epilepsy, which left him in a fragile emotional and physical condition. Some critics and biographers have speculated that Dostoevsky endowed Myshkin with epilepsy in an almost cathartic attempt to come to terms with the circumstances of his own condition. Dostoevsky also continued to succumb to his obsession with gambling, which left him desperate and penniless. As a result, Dostoevsky realized that he needed to produce a work that would lift him out of debt and change his family's fortunes. To that end, he began work on a novel which he had promised the journal Russian Messenger. When The Idiot appeared in serial form beginning in 1868, readers responded with bewilderment to what they considered to be incomplete characters, an incoherent narrative structure, and a fantastical, unrealistic setting. Given the initial reticence of the periodical subscribers, publishers were reluctant to purchase the book rights to the novel. Indeed, readers and commentators alike considered The Idiot a step backward for Dostoevsky after the resounding popular success of his previous novel, Crime and Punishment (1867).
Also, a passionate affair with Suslova, a "fatal woman" who tormented him. His love-hate relationship with her served as a basis for many similar relationships in his novels. Suslova's personality may have influenced such femme-fatales as Nastassya Filippovna and Aglaya, though she did not serve as the complete model for either of those characters.
Intertwined with Dostoevsky's passion for Suslova was his passion for gambling, which continued for many years. In 1864, his first wife, Marie Isaeva, died of consumption, much like Hippolite in The Idiot.
Plot: Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a fair-haired young man in his late twenties and a descendant of one of the oldest Russian lines of nobility, arrives in St. Petersburg on a November morning. He has spent the last four years in a Swiss clinic for treatment of his "idiocy" and epilepsy.
Myshkin's only relation in St. Petersburg is the very distant Lizaveta Prokofyevna Yepanchin. Madame Yepanchin is the wife of General Yepanchin, a wealthy and respected man in his late fifties. The prince makes the acquaintance of the Yepanchins, who have three daughters, Alexandra, Adelaida, and Aglaya, the latter being the youngest and the most beautiful.
General Yepanchin has an ambitious and rather vain assistant by the name of Gavril Ardalyonovich Ivolgin (nicknamed Ganya) whom Myshkin also meets during his visit to the household. Ganya, though he is actually in love with Aglaya, is in the midst of trying to marry Anastassya Filippovna Barashkov, an extraordinarily beautiful "fatal woman" who was once the mistress of the aristocrat Totsky. Totsky has promised Ganya 75,000 rubles if he marries the "fallen" Nastassya Filippovna. As Myshkin is so innocent and naïve, Ganya openly discusses the subject of the proposed marriage in front of the prince. The prince rents a room in the Ivolgin apartment, also occupied by Ganya, his sister, Varvara Ardalyonovna (Varya); his mother, Nina Alexandrovna; teenage brother, Nikolai (Kolya); his father, General Ivolgin; and another lodger by the name of Ferdyshchenko.
Nastassya Filippovna arrives and attempts to insult Ganya's family, which has refused to accept her as a possible wife for Ganya. Myshkin, however, stops her, putting her behavior to shame. Suddenly a rowdy crowd of drunks and rogues arrives, headed by Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin, a dark-haired twenty-seven-year-old who is passionately in love with Nastassya Filippovna. Rogozhin promises to bring 100,000 rubles to Nastassya Filippovna's birthday party scheduled for that evening at which she is to announce whether she will marry Ganya or not.
Among the guests at the party are Totsky, General Yepanchin, Ganya, Ferdyshchenko, Ptitsyn—a usurer friend of Ganya's who is a suitor to Varya Ivolgin—and a few others. With the help of Kolya, Prince Myshkin arrives as well, though uninvited. Following the prince's advice, Nastassya Filippovna refuses Ganya's proposal. Rogozhin arrives with the promised 100,000 rubles, but suddenly Myshkin himself offers to marry Nastassya Filippovna, announcing that he has recently learned he has a large inheritance. Though shocked at such a generous offer by an honest and generous heart, Nastassya Filippovna only deems herself worthy of being with Rogozhin, so she leaves the party with Rogozhin and his gang.
Prince Myshkin spends the next six months following Nastassya Filippovna as she runs from Rogozhin to the prince and back. Myshkin's inheritance turns out to be smaller than expected, and it shrinks further as he satisfies the claims of creditors and alleged relatives, many of which are fraudulent. Finally, the Prince returns to St. Petersburg and visits Rogozhin's house, which is a dark and dreary place. They discuss religion and exchange crosses.
However, later that day, Rogozhin attempts to stab Myshkin in the hall of the prince's hotel, but the prince is saved when he has a sudden epileptic fit. Several days later, Myshkin leaves for Pavlovsk, a nearby town popular for summer residence among St. Petersburg nobility. The prince rents several rooms from Lebedev, a rogue functionary. Most of the novel's characters—the Yepanchins, the Ivolgins, Varya and her husband Ptitsyn, and Nastassya Filippovna—spend the summer in Pavlovsk as well.
Burdovsky, a young man who claims himself to be the son of Myshkin's late benefactor, Pavlishchev, comes to the prince and demands money from him as a "just" reimbursement for Pavlishchev's support of the Prince. Burdovsky is supported by a group of insolent young men who include the consumptive seventeen-year old Hippolite Terentyev, a friend of Kolya Ivolgin. Although Burdovsky's claim is obviously fraudulent—he is not Pavlishchev's son at all—Myshkin is ready and willing to help Burdovsky financially.
The prince spends much of his time at the Yepanchins'. Soon, those around him realize that he is in love with Aglaya and that she most likely returns his feelings. However, a haughty, willful, and capricious girl, she refuses to admit her love for Prince Myshkin, and often even openly mocks him. Aglaya's family begins to treat him as her fiancé, and they even hold a dinner party with many renowned guests who are members of Russian high society.
Myshkin, during the course of an agitated and ardent speech on religion and the future of aristocracy, accidentally breaks a beautiful Chinese vase. Later in the evening he has a mild epileptic fit. The guests and the family are convinced that the seemingly sickly prince is not a good match for Aglaya.
Aglaya, however, does not renounce Myshkin, and even arranges a meeting between herself and Nastassya Filippovna, who has been writing letters to Aglaya to convince her to marry Myshkin. During this meeting, the two women force the Prince to choose between his romantic love for Aglaya and his compassionate pity-love for Nastassya Filippovna. Myshkin hesitates briefly, which prompts Aglaya to run off, breaking all hope of an engagement between them. Nastassya Filippovna wishes to marry the Prince again, but in the end she proves unable to bring herself to do so, instead running off with Rogozhin at the last minute.
The Prince follows the two to St. Petersburg the next day and finds that Rogozhin has stabbed Nastassya Filippovna during the night. The two men keep vigil over her body, which Rogozhin has laid out in his study. The epilogue relates that Rogozhin is sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in Siberia, that Prince Myshkin loses his mind and returns to the Swiss sanitarium, and that Aglaya leaves Russia with a Polish count who lies to her and soon abandons her.
Review: This man is naturally likened to Christ in many ways. Dostoyevsky uses Myshkin's introduction to the Petersburg society as a way to contrast the nature of Russian society at the time and the isolation and innocence of this good man. This is highlighted by his conflicts and relationship with Rogozhin. Indeed, Myshkin and Rogozhin are contrasted from the outset. Myshkin is associated with light, Rogozhin with dark. Despite their difference, Myshkin and Rogozhin are both after Nastasya Filippovna—good and bad (and mediocre, in the image of Ganya) strive for the same thing. Rogozhin loves Nastasya with a deep passion. Myshkin, however, loves her out of pity, out of Christian love. This love for her supersedes even the romantic love he has for Aglaia. It is important to note that Aglaia developed a great appreciation for Myshkin's purity of heart and capacity for empathic love, even that which he felt for Nastasya.
The Idiot shows what happens when a simple, trusting and exceptionally compassionate child-man enters the more corrupt world of human adulthood without the experience to navigate, or even to perceive, the traps and snares laid by more worldly humans whose innocence has been chipped or stripped bare by ambition, envy, greed, despair or old age.
Prince Myshkin is a sort of Russian Christ who represents the values Dostoevsky deemed the highest and most noble: altruism, meekness, kindness, and brotherly love. As Dostoevsky saw sexual passion as inherently selfish, it is not surprising that Prince Myshkin is a completely asexual character. Though he develops romantic feelings toward Aglaya, he subordinates them to a higher ideal of pity and compassion that he expresses in his relationship with Nastassya Filippovna. Facing the "dark world" of corruption and moral decay that he meets in society, he inevitably perishes.
Opening Line: “Towards the end of November, during a thaw, at nine o'clock one morning, a train on the Warsaw and Petersburg railway was approaching the latter city at full speed.”
Closing Line: “So spoke the good lady, almost angrily, as she took leave of Evgenie Pavlovitch.”
Quotes: “The latter, amazed at her conduct, began to express his displeasure; but he very soon became aware that he must change his voice, style, and everything else, with this young lady; the good old times were gone.”
Rating: Okay.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

383. Go Down, Moses – William Faulkner

History: Although originally published in 1942 as Go Down, Moses and Other Stories (apparently against the desires of the author) Go Down, Moses is a collection of seven related pieces of short fiction sometimes considered a novel. The most prominent character and unifying voice is that of Isaac McCaslin, "Uncle Ike", who will live to be an old man; "uncle to half a county and father to no one." Though originally considered (by the public) a collection of short stories, Faulkner insisted in his later years that the book was truly a novel.
It spans more than a century in the history of the McCaslin family, viewing their hardships and triumphs by examining their daily lives. Its plantation and the fictional Yoknapatawpha County are in Mississippi. It deals with such issues as slavery and race, the relationship between man and nature, the vanishing wilderness, stewardship versus ownership of land, and property and inheritance.
The title refers to the spiritual "Go Down Moses", which draws a comparison between the enslavement of blacks in America and the Jews in Egypt, as is evidenced by Molly(ie) Beauchamp's comments in the final story, where she repeats that her grandson has been "sold to pharaoh".
Plot: “Was” - This story takes place in the childhood of McCaslin Edmonds, who is simply referred to as "the boy" and is understood to be the object of all masculine pronouns. The year is about 1859, and depicts events that took place before the birth of any character who appears in the remaining chapters. Also, it is the only story depicting events prior to the Civil War and emancipation; i.e., it takes place while slavery still exists.
"Cass" lives with his uncles Theophilus and Amodeus McCaslin, called "Uncle Buck" and "Uncle Buddy" respectively by most of the characters in the book. Buck/Buddy are bachelor twins, live like boys who never grew up. As we learn in "The Bear": as soon as their father died, they freed the slaves at least in title (couldn't literally have freed slaves in the Deep South by that time), moved them into the big house, themselves moving into a cabin they built for themselves on the plantation; "sealing" the slaves into the big house with a single nail each evening, actually allowing them to roam free. Evidently Buck - who married Sophonsiba and became Ike's father after the Civil War - was unwilling to marry/ pass on any legacy so long as the institution of slavery remained.
The story opens with the news that Tomey's Turl, a slave on the McCaslin plantation, has run away. But this is not the first time this has happened and Uncle Buck and Buddy know where he always goes, to Hubert Beauchamp's neighboring plantation to see his love, a slave girl named Tennie. The "hunt" for Tomey's Turl a comical imitation of a slave hunt. The whole event only dimly comprehended by Cass, who's too young to understand the force of erotic passion that drives Tomey's Turl to the Beauchamps. Beauchamp himself has an unmarried sister, Sophonsiba, who seems romantically interested in Buck. Forced to stay the night to look for Tomey's Turl, Buck and Cass accidentally enter Sophonsiba's room, thinking it to be their room. This situation is exploited by Hubert who tries to pressure Buck into marrying Sophonsiba. Buck does not agree to Hubert's exploitive interpretation of events.
Hubert Beauchamp is unwilling to resolve the issue by purchasing Tomey's Turl because he doesn't want "damned half-white McCaslin" (who by virtue of being Carothers McCaslin's son exhibits the injustice/ arbitrariness of the slave system) on his plantation. Buck, Buddy and Hubert settle both their situation and that of Tomey's Turl by tying them to the outcome of a poker match. If Buck loses, he is to marry Sophonsiba and must agree to buy the slave girl Tennie so Turl will stop running away to see her. Buck loses, but coaxes Hubert into allowing another game, Hubert against Buddy, to determine the marriage and property issues. The stakes are changed many times, but in the end Buddy wins and the McCaslins take Tennie for free.
Uncle Buck and Sophonsiba Beauchamp eventually marry and become the parents of Isaac McCaslin, the central character who serves to unify most of the stories in the novel.
Tennie was married to Tomey's Turl in 1859.
"Was" serves to introduce the reader into the practices and mentality of the antebellum South. Where Tomey's Turl is first introduced, he seems to be referred to more as an animal, such as a horse, than a person. When Hubert and Buck are taking bets on where Tomey's Turl will show up, the reader further sees how far removed from human the slaves are in the eyes of the owners. (This is particularly revealing in light of Faulkner's later revelation that Tomey's Turl is, in fact, Buck and Buddy's half-brother, the son of their father, Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, and his slave Tomey.) Additionally, it is possible Faulkner intends for the entrapping of Buck into marriage with Sophonsiba to be analogous to slavery, although Buck seems to accept it silently.
"The Fire and the Hearth" Many generations later (around 1941) Lucas Beauchamp, the son of Tomey's Turl and Tennie, lives and works on the McCaslin plantation, now owned by Carothers "Roth" Edmonds, the grandson of McCaslin Edmonds (who is Isaac's elder cousin, and Lucas' as well). Lucas discovers a gold coin on the land and becomes convinced of a large hidden treasure. Also, Lucas's daughter is being pursued, in spite of Lucas' wishes, for marriage by a poor black man George Wilkins. Lucas and George both distill liquor illegally and Lucas decides to prevent Wilkins' marriage to his daughter by telling Roth, since the liquor is being made on Roth's land. Roth calls the authorities, but they arrive just as Wilkins has put large jugs of whiskey on Lucas's porch and as his daughter hides the still in his own backyard. While Lucas's daughter cannot testify against him due to kinship, George Wilkins can. Consequently, Lucas is forced into allowing the marriage between Wilkins and his daughter to prevent Wilkins from having to testify against him. Lucas returns to the plantation, and cons a salesman out of a metal detector to search for the treasure he adamantly believes exists. The search becomes an obsession and Lucas's wife asks Roth for a divorce. Lucas initially agrees to the divorce, but recants at the last moment, deciding that he's too old. The treasure isn't meant for him to find.
Here, Faulkner explicates the nature of the relationship between the black and white sides of the McCaslin family tree. One recurring theme seems to be the historical irony in the distribution of land, power, and surname: the Beauchamp name is taken by the black side of the McCaslin family, even though it is the side to descend through male blood, while the white descendants of Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, the patriarch of the family, inherit his land and wealth notwithstanding their lineage coming from the patriarch's daughter. Lucas makes much of this difference as well as the fact that he is two generations closer to McCaslin than Roth, perhaps believing himself to somehow be of nobler blood and/or feeling that his descendence deserves more of McCaslin's original legacy.
Also touched upon is the impotence of the black man's actions. Lucas must persuade Roth, a man a generation younger than him and seemingly less deserving of the Carothers plantation than Lucas is, to report George Wilkins in order for the tip off to be taken seriously by authorities.
"Pantaloon in Black"
First and foremost, this is a story of overwhelming grief. Rider, an incredibly strong and large negro who lives on "Roth" Carothers McCaslin's plantation, is bereaved by the death of his wife. He digs his wife's grave at incredible speed, and the visitors at the funeral wonder why he is digging his wife into the ground so quickly. That night, Rider believes he sees the ghost of his wife. He returns to work at a sawmill the next day, but after chucking an incredibly large log down a hill, walks off the job and buys a jug of whiskey, drinking copiously. Rider goes to the tool room at the mill and confronts a man named Birdsong, who has been cheating negroes in dice for years. Rider cuts Birdsong's throat. The narrative shifts and the story is now in the home of the local sheriff's deputy, who is telling his disinterested wife the remainder of the story about Rider. The reader learns that after killing Birdsong, Rider is caught and arrested. In jail, he rips the door to his cell completely off and fights the other prisoners. Two days later Rider has been found, hanging from a bell-rope in a negro schoolhouse.
Perspective is important in this story. The first part is a third-person examination of the stages of grief, particularly denial and rage. The second is the sad tale of Rider's fate, as seen through the unreliable eyes of a callous white deputy sheriff who describes vividly what he cannot understand.
"The Old People"
This story takes place in 1878, and provides background information for “The Bear”. In the forest, Sam Fathers, the son of a Choctaw chief and a quadroon (person of ¼ African and ¾ caucasion) teaches Isaac McCaslin how to hunt. When Isaac is deemed old enough to go on the yearly hunting expeditions with Major de Spain, General Compson, and Isaac's older cousin McCaslin Edmonds, he kills his first buck, and Sam Fathers ritualistically anoints him with its blood.
Isaac remembers Sam Father's history; Sam's Indian surname means "had two fathers"; his "biological" father was the Indian chief Ikkemotubbe, his mother the quadroon slave woman purchased by Ikkemotubbe and subsequently sold (along with the slave to whom he married her and her child Sam) to Carothers McCaslin. Ikkemotubbe ruthlessly made himself chief by poisoning his nephew, son of the old chief. He showed himself no less ruthless than Carothers, who bought the land from him. Sam left the Jefferson area for the big forest after the death of Jobaker, his Chickasaw friend. Sam now tends the hunting camp of Major de Spain and McCaslin Edmonds.
After Isaac kills his buck, the group is making ready to leave, when Boon Hogganbeck rides in on a mule declaring that he has just seen a massive buck. The group disperses to try to hunt the big deer before they leave. Sam leads Isaac to a clearing; they hear Walter Ewell's horn, and Isaac assumes the buck has been killed. But then a giant buck comes down the slope toward them and looks at them with gravity and dignity. Sam calls it "grandfather". They do not shoot at it.
That night, McCaslin and Isaac stay at Major de Spain's house near Jefferson, 17 miles away from the McCaslin plantation. In bed, Isaac tells McCaslin about the buck, and McCaslin speculates that it represented some form of indomitable, primal energy that grows up out of the earth from all the blood that seeps into it and all the lives it absorbs. Isaac thinks that McCaslin does not believe him, that he is accusing him of claiming to have seen a ghost; but McCaslin tells him solemnly that he, too, has seen the buck: Sam took him into that same clearing the day he killed his first deer.
The two main features of this short story about Isaac McCaslin's childhood are, first, its portrayal of the first steps in the development of Isaac's beliefs about nature and the land, and second, its portrayal of the history of Sam Fathers, whose betrayal at the hands of his father, Ikkemotubbe, and subsequent upbringing as a slave mirrors several other familial displacements throughout the book. Isaac's first lessons in the tradition of the hunt lead him to experience two pristine moments: his anointment in the blood of the buck and his vision of the giant spirit-buck. His acceptance of the tradition passed down to him by Sam Fathers and implicitly understood by the other "old people" of the story's title represents another kind of patrimony, this one free of corruption and violence (except the violence of the hunt): the patrimony of moral tradition, whereby values are handed down from one generation to another. As McCaslin Edmonds notes in theorizing about the spirit-buck, life is always too short for those living it and always diffuses itself into its environment. Just as blood and fallen leaves are absorbed by the earth, the values of the hunt are absorbed by young Isaac. If the spirit-buck represents a concentrated manifestation of this kind of energy, it is significant that Sam Fathers calls it "grandfather"; there is a patrimony between nature and man, as well. Sam Fathers's history shows another example of cultural displacement and another example of a son brought up in an environment outside his normal family. Just as McCaslin is raised by his uncles and Isaac is raised by McCaslin, Sam Fathers is raised by his mother and a man who is not his father. His father betrays him, just as Carothers McCaslin betrays Turl (letting him be raised as a slave, leaving him a bequest only after he dies), and probably for the same reason: the mixed racial status of the child.
"The Bear"
As Isaac grows older, he becomes an expert hunter and woodsman, and continues going with the hunting parties every year. The group becomes increasingly preoccupied with hunting Old Ben, a monstrous, almost immortal bear that wreaks havoc throughout the forest. Old Ben's foot was maimed in a trap, and he seems impervious to bullets. Isaac learns to track Old Ben, but it is useless to hunt him because all the hounds are afraid of him. Sam Fathers, who teaches Isaac Old Ben's ways, says that it will take an extraordinary dog to bring Old Ben down. Isaac sees Old Ben several times. Once, they send a tiny fyce-dog with no sense of danger after him, and Isaac even has a shot at the huge bear. But instead of taking it, he runs after the fyce and dives to save him from the bear. He looks up at Old Ben looming over him and remembers the image from his dreams about the bear.
At last they find the dog capable of bringing Old Ben to bay: Lion, a huge, wild Airedale mix with extraordinary courage and savagery. Sam makes Lion semi-tame by starving him until he will allow himself to be touched; soon, Boon Hogganbeck has devoted himself to Lion and even shares a bed with him. Using Lion, they nearly catch Old Ben, but Boon Hogganbeck misses five point-blank shots. General Compson hits the bear and draws blood, but Old Ben escapes into the forest. Isaac and Boon go into Memphis to buy whisky for the men, and the next day, they go after the bear again. General Compson declares that he wants Isaac to ride Kate, the only mule who is not afraid of wild animals and, therefore, the best chance any of the men have to get close enough to the bear to kill him.
In the deep woods, near the river, Lion leaps at Old Ben and takes hold of his throat. Old Ben seizes Lion and begins shredding his stomach with his claws. Boon Hogganbeck draws his knife and throws himself on top of the bear, stabbing it in its back. Old Ben dies, and a few days later, Lion dies as well. Sam Fathers collapses after the fight and dies not long after Lion. Lion and Sam are buried in the same clearing.
Isaac returns to the farm near Jefferson, to the old McCaslin plantation. Time passes; eventually he is 21, and it is time for him to assume control of the plantation, which is his by inheritance. But he renounces it in favor of his cousin McCaslin Edmonds, who is practically his father. Isaac has a long argument with McCaslin in which he declares his belief that the land cannot be owned, that the curse of God's Earth is man's attempt to own the land, and that that curse has led to slavery and the destruction of the South. McCaslin tries to argue with him, but Isaac remembers looking through the old ledger books of Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy and piecing together the story of the plantation's slaves, and he refuses the inheritance. (One of Isaac's inferences is particularly appalling: Tomey, the slave who Carothers McCaslin took as a lover and the mother of Turl, may also have been Carothers McCaslin's daughter by another slave, Eunice. Eunice committed suicide shortly before Turl's birth, and from this and other factors, Isaac deduces that she must also have been Carothers McCaslin's lover.)
So, Isaac refuses the inheritance, moves to town, and becomes a carpenter, eschewing material possessions. He marries a woman who urges him to take back the plantation, but he refuses even when she tries to convince him sexually. He administers the money left to the children of Tomey's Turl and Tennie, even traveling to Arkansas to give a thousand dollars to Fonsiba, Lucas's sister, who moved there with a scholarly negro farmer who never seems to farm. Isaac continues to hunt and to spend all the time he can in the woods.
Once, he goes back to the hunting camp where they stalked Old Ben for so many years. Major de Spain has sold it to a logging company and the trains come closer and louder than before. Soon, it will be whittled away by the loggers. Isaac goes to the graves of Lion and Sam Fathers, then goes to find Boon Hogganbeck. Boon is in a clearing full of squirrels, trying to fix his gun. As Isaac enters, Boon shouts at him not to touch any of the squirrels: "They're mine!" he cries.
"Delta Autumn"
This story serves as a sort of sequel or coda to "The Bear". Ike McCaslin and Roth Edmonds are in a car with some friends, headed for what Ike suspects will be the last of his annual hunting expeditions. The wilderness has receded in recent years, and it is now a long trip by automobile. Along the way they discuss the worsening situation in Europe, with Roth taking the cynic’s view against Ike’s idealism. At one point Roth slams on the brakes, as if he saw someone or something standing along the road. He seems preoccupied and out of sorts.
The men eventually arrive at their campsite and set it up under Ike’s direction. During the night, the old man thinks about his bygone life, and about how he and the wilderness are dying together.
The next morning the rest of the party set out to hunt while Ike chooses to sleep in. Roth gives him an envelope full of cash and mentions that a messenger might show up during the day. Ike is to hand over the money and “tell her I said ‘No.’” Later that morning a boat arrives. It carries a dark-eyed young woman with a baby wrapped in a blanket. Ike, ashamed of acting as a go-between in such a sordid matter, informs her that Roth has left and tries to thrust the money on her. She refuses to take it immediately, and remarks that Roth has abandoned her. Ike contemptuously asks how she could have expected anything different from him.
As the conversation goes on, it becomes clear that the young woman knows a great deal about Ike’s family and his own life, more than Roth would probably have told her. For she is part of the family herself, a distant Beauchamp cousin. Ike is dismayed at the miscegenation, even though he imagines that the human race might one day be ready for interracial alliances. He tells the woman to marry a man “of her own race” and go far away. She replies that he is hardly qualified to advise anyone about love and leaves with the money.
Ike is still pondering this disturbing incident when one of his hunting companions runs in, frantically looking for a knife. The old hunter deduces that Roth has killed a doe and is trying to hide the evidence; another family sin that must be covered up.
"Go Down, Moses"
The book's final story begins with a census interview, which places the action in 1940. A well-dressed and well-spoken young black man identifies himself as Samuel Beauchamp, a native of Yoknapatawpha County. After completing the census form, he is led back to his cell on Death Row.
The action shifts to Jefferson, the Yoknapatawpha county seat. The protagonist is Gavin Stevens, a local attorney and amateur Biblical scholar and detective. Mollie Beauchamp (Lucas' wife) has had a premonition of harm involving her long-lost grandson Samuel. She begs Stevens to discover his whereabouts and condition. He pities the old woman and accepts the job for a token fee.
Stevens soon discovers that Samuel Beauchamp is due to be executed in Illinois within hours. Without quite understanding why, he donates and collects enough money to bring the young man's body home for a proper funeral. That evening, Stevens drops by the memorial service, but quickly leaves because he feels out of place. The funeral is held two days later.
This is the shortest and most straightforward story in the book. The action is minimal. Its real importance lies in the fresh perspective it provides through Gavin Stevens, an educated and worldly man of the 20th century who would eventually become a key figure in Faulkner's later fiction. Stevens is like several other white characters in Go Down, Moses in that his impression of blacks in general is quite paternalistic and tradition-bound. He is, however, capable of change; at the story's end he experiences an epiphany when he learns that Mollie wants the funeral to be covered in the local newspaper "just like anyone else's". His realization ends the book on a somewhat hopeful note; perhaps the old cycle of exploitation and willful ignorance will not last forever after all.
Review: Faulkner is always challenging. "Go Down, Moses" is no exception. In particular, the genealogy of the McCaslin-Edmonds-Beauchamp family causes no end of confusion. You will encounter characters named McCaslin Edmonds, Carothers McCaslin, Carothers McCaslin Edmonds, etc... (I found drawing a family tree helped me immensely)! Furthermore, the narrative is hardly linear; characters jump around in space and time, tell stories of other peoples' experiences in the midst of their own reminiscences, and in general relate their tales in a manner that will keep you constantly flipping back and forth through the book. The reader is not a passive recipient of information but actively engaged in the process of determining plot, characters, and truth. I like this style because it reminds me of how we construct narratives in our own minds. We go off on tangents, we ramble endlessly before returning suddenly to our original subject, we remember things as they occur to us more often than we do in chronological order. Faulkner is more psychologist than novelist: he puts us inside the minds of his characters and lets them tell the story for themselves.
The particular thoughtful and intimate history portrayed in "Go Down, Moses" is that of a Mississippi plantation family and their relationships with their slaves, their land, and their own histories from the antebellum era to the Depression. This is a book about race, and I have yet to see a more chilling, touching, and humanly accurate description of race relations in the South. An equally crucial, yet often-overlooked, theme of "Go Down, Moses" is the issue of man's relation to land, ownership, and the natural world. Faulkner's descriptions of the virgin Mississippi forest and the vanishing Delta region are both beautiful and powerful, and I think contribute equally to the book in providing it with its distinctive flavor and voice.
Reading "The Bear" as a standalone story is simply not sufficient. For one, it is the longest section by far in the book, and new readers of Faulkner may easily lose track of the story, or just as easily lose interest altogether. Furthermore, the remainder of this excellent work provides a framework for an understanding and identification with the characters and the landscape of rural Mississippi that they inhabit.
Opening Line: “Isaac McCaslin, “Uncle Ike”, past seventy and nearer eighty than he ever corroborated any more, a widower now and uncle to half a county and father to no one.”
Closing Line: “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get back to town. I haven’t seen my desk in two days.”
Quotes: “To the sheriff Lucas was just another nigger and both the sheriff and Lucas knew it, although only one of them knew that to Lucas the sheriff was a redneck without any reason for pride in his forbears nor hope for it in his descendants.”
“God created man and He created the world for him to live in and I reckon He created the kind of world He would have wanted to live in if He had been a man--the ground to walk on, the big woods, the trees and the water, and the game to live in it. And maybe He didn't put the desire to hunt and kill game in man but I reckon He knew it was going to be there, that man was going to teach it to himself, since he wasn't quite God himself yet.”
Rating: Very Good