Friday, September 30, 2011

423. Hunger – Knut Hansom

History: This novel was published in its final form in 1890. Parts of it had been published anonymously in the Danish magazine Ny Jord in 1888. The novel has been hailed as the literary opening of the 20th century and an outstanding example of modern, psychology-driven literature.
Hunger encompasses two of Hamsun's literary and ideological leitmotifs:
His insistence that the intricacies of the human mind ought to be the main object of modern literature. Hamsun's own literary program, to describe 'the whisper of the blood and the pleading of the bone marrow', is thoroughly manifest in Hunger.
His depreciation of modern, urban civilization. In the famous opening lines of the novel, he ambiguously describes Kristiania as 'this wondrous city that no one leaves before it has made its marks upon him.'
Plot: The novel's first-person protagonist, an unnamed vagrant with intellectual leanings, probably in his late twenties, wanders the streets of Norway's capital in pursuit of nourishment. It is clear from the opening chapter he is mentally unstable, accosting women on the street with strange behavior, yet physically he is healthy. Over four episodes he meets a number of more or less mysterious persons, the most notable being Ylajali, a young woman with whom he has a semi-sexual encounter. This woman haunts him and he attempts to refind her to no avail. He has a self-created code of chivalry, giving money and clothes to needy children and vagrants, not eating food given to him out of respect for their kindness, and turning himself in for stealing. Essentially self-destructive, he thus falls into traps of his own making, and with a lack of food, warmth and basic comfort, his body turns slowly to ruin. Overwhelmed by hunger, he scrounges for meals, at one point nearly eating his own (rather precious) pencil. His social, physical and mental state are in constant decline. However, he has no antagonistic feelings towards 'society' as such, rather he blames his fate on 'God' or a divine world order. He vows not to succumb to this order and remains 'a foreigner in life', haunted by 'nervousness, by irrational details'. He experiences a major artistic and financial triumph when he sells a text to a newspaper, but despite this he finds writing increasingly difficult due to the lack of food - he can't write without food, and can't eat without writing. At one point in the story, he asks to spend a night in a prison cell, fooling the police into believing that he is a well-to-do journalist who has lost the keys to his apartment; in the morning he can't bring himself to reveal his poverty, even to partake in the free breakfast they provide the homeless, since this would bring their attention to the fact that he'd lied about his identity and would land him in further troubles. Finally as the book comes to close, when his existence is at an absolute ebb, he signs on to the crew of a ship leaving the city.
Review: "Hunger" is one of those books that most young men probably dream of writing, and which they occasionally manage to pull off. The unnamed narrator stumbles about Christiania (now Oslo), a penniless man of letters, pawning his waistcoat (vest) for a kroner and a half, munching the odd bit of bread, but basically hovering in half-starvation and scheming about brilliant articles that he'll write which will not only enable him to buy food and pay the rent but which will also make his name as one of the best young writers of, etc. etc.
It probably sounds awful. It isn't. It's a masterpiece, if only because there's a curious gap between the experience and the telling of it. The narrator is entirely without self-pity. He never whinges - he curses, he daydreams, he fantasises, but he is always aware of his folly even when he's in the midst of it. This is what gives the book its incredible readability. Everything is portrayed in a crisp, early-morning light, everything is vividly _there_, there's no Holden Caulfield-type nostalgia or sentimental reverie. (During the 1960s, it was made into an incredible film - remarkable for a book which is mostly interior monologue.)
"Hunger" shows a man reduced by his condition to a point where physiological and mental impulses blow him around like a paper in the wind. He entertains grandiose ideas but can't sustain them for more than a few moments. He engages in pointless antics and gives way to spur-of-the-moment impulses. Though he wails and cries, it's clear he enjoys his degradation. He may be the genius he thinks he is, but could equally well be a charlatan. His contacts with other people are minimal and glancing, and only add to his degraded state. You see life as lived from the bottom, in an atmosphere where desperation acts as a kind of drug.
The book is essentially plotless, and is structured almost symphonically, in four parts (or "movements"). I can imagine a bunch of modern creative-writing types, with their Perfectly Plausible Plots and insistence on the Show-Don't-Tell rule, tearing "Hunger" to pieces. No matter: the rambling, the violent mood swings, and the violation of fictional protocols actually give it strength. Next to most of the novels of its time, "Hunger" must have felt like a blow to the face. A sometimes painful but often exhilarating blow. Written after Hamsun's return from an ill-fated tour of America, Hunger is loosely based on the author's own impoverished life before his breakthrough in 1890. Set in late 19th century Kristiania, the novel recounts the adventures of a starving young man whose sense of reality is giving way to a delusionary existence on the darker side of a modern metropolis. While he vainly tries to maintain an outer shell of respectability, his mental and physical decay are recounted in detail. His ordeal, enhanced by his inability or unwillingness to pursue a professional career, which he deems unfit for someone of his abilities, is pictured in a series of encounters which Hamsun himself described as 'a series of analyses.' In many ways, the protagonist of the novel displays traits reminiscent of Raskolnikov, whose creator, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was one of Hamsun's main influences. The influence of naturalist authors such as Emile Zola is apparent in the novel, as is his rejection of the realist tradition.
Opening Line: “It was during the time I wandered about and starved in Kristiania.”
Closing Line: “To Kristiania, where the windows gleamed so brightly in all the homes.”
Quotes: “I suffered no pain, my hunger had taken the edge off; instead I felt pleasantly empty, untouched by everything around me and happy to be unseen by all. I put my legs up on the bench and leaned back, the best way to feel the true well-being of seclusion. There wasn't a cloud in my mind, nor did I feel any discomfort, and I hadn't a single unfulfilled desire or craving as far as my thought could reach. I lay with open eyes in a state of utter absence from myself and felt deliciously out of it.”
Rating: Awful.

422. Portnoy’s Complaint – Phillip Roth

History: Published in 1969 this American novel turned its author Philip Roth into a major celebrity, sparking a storm of controversy over its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality, including detailed depictions of masturbation using various props including a piece of liver that his mother eventually uses for dinner.
It is a continuous monologue as narrated by its speaker, Alexander Portnoy, to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel; Roth later explained that the artistic choice to frame the story as a psychoanalytic session, was motivated by "the permissive conventions of the patient-analyst situation," which would "permit me to bring into my fiction the sort of intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language that [...] in another fictional environment would have struck me as pornographic, exhibitionistic, and nothing but obscene."
Portnoy is "a lust-ridden, mother addicted young Jewish bachelor," and the narration weaves through time describing scenes from each stage of his life; every recollection in some way touches upon his central dilemma: his inability to enjoy the fruits of his sexual adventures even as his extreme libidinal urges force him to seek release in ever more creative (and, in his mind, degrading and shameful) acts of eroticism; also, much of his dilemma is that "his sense of himself, his past, and his ridiculous destiny is so fixed".
Roth is not subtle about defining this as the main theme of his book. On the first page of the novel, one finds this clinical definition of "Portnoy's Complaint", as if taken from a manual on sexual dysfunction: Portnoy's Complaint: A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature...
Ever since its publication, speculation has abounded as to how much of Portnoy's Complaint is fiction and how much is thinly veiled autobiography. Roth himself pokes fun at these parlor games in his 1981 novel Zuckerman Unbound, where alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman is continually accosted by clueless strangers who cannot believe he was exercising the creative faculties of a writer when he wrote the sex scenes in Carnovsky (the alter-novel to Portnoy's Complaint).
Still, by cross-referencing data from interviews, the autobiography of ex-wife Claire Bloom, Roth's own pseudo-autobiography The Facts, and his more biographically mimetic Zuckerman novels, the following can be established about Portnoy's Complaint with a high degree of certainty.
The central female character of Portnoy's Complaint, Mary Jane Reed (aka "The Monkey") is a caricature of Roth's first wife, Margaret Martinson. Specifically, the women share the same neurotic need to submerge themselves in Portnoy's/Roth's Jewish identity so as to co-opt some of the same family love that was missing from their own lives.
Roth and Portnoy share the same birth-year (1933) and birth place.
Plot: This well-known novel, once-controversial because of its graphic sexual and religious content, is the story of Alexander Portnoy, a profoundly troubled young Jewish man struggling with several disquieting obsessions. Narrated from a passionate, highly articulate and frantic stream of consciousness point of view, the book explores themes relating to the nature and purpose of sexuality, Jewishness, and freedom.
This narrative of one man's tortured explorations of his past and present is told from the first person point of view, unfolding through a complicated, cause-triggering-effect relationship between past and present, idea and feeling, insight and observation. It begins with the narrator's blunt, serio-comic description of his very Jewish, very controlling, and very frustrating parents, and continues with a graphic and uncompromising description of his obsession with sex in general, and masturbation in particular.
Narration reveals that the teller of these often raucous, frequently ranting, occasionally poignant stories, Alex. First he focuses on his perpetually constipated, ambitious, disappointed, disappointing, increasingly embittered father, he then refers to his superficially perfect, image-obsessed, subconsciously racist, socially competitive mother, with his opinion of her summed up in the narrative of how she steam-sterilized the dishes and cutlery used by their black maid while talking about how generous she (mother) was compared to other employers.
Alex's principal concern is his obsession with masturbation. He describes in graphic, comic detail the number of times he masturbated as a child and young adolescent (up to four times a day) and the various ways he masturbated (at school into a urinal, between courses at dinner, wearing his sister's soiled panties over his head).
Alex describes at length the nature of his obsession, how he experiences his numerous sexual affairs of various lengths, and how much more fair it is to live this way (by responding freely to his sexual desires) rather than putting some poor woman through the torture of an eventually unloving, inevitably unfaithful marriage.
He refers specifically to a woman he calls The Monkey ("a nickname that derives from a little perversion she once engaged in shortly before meeting me and going on to grander things ...") and to how The Monkey erupted in wounded fury when he told her he was ending their relationship instead of marrying her.
her encounter with a married couple who wanted her to watch and eat a banana while they were making love—later, however, The Monkey confesses that it was she who wanted the banana. Alex also describes how subsequent relationships all went bad, until she met him—in her mind, Alex suggests, he was her savior, her future husband and breadwinner. He describes in crude, intimate detail how they picked each other up on the street, had sex right away, and how she eventually started opening her mind...
In college there were two important relationships Alex had with shikses during his college years, bringing him in more contact with his Jewishness and alienation from the “Goya” . He travels to Israel, where he has a brief sexual encounter with Lima, asks her to marry him, and she refuses.
At the core of an individual's onion-like layered truth, the only option is to rebuild, to create new layers of truth and experience (genuine this time) on the individual's core needs. The end of this journey is in fact the beginning, of a layering process that, in an oyster and over a long period of time, constructs a pearl.
Review: The title also alludes to the common literary form of Complaint, such as A Lover's Complaint, which typically presents the speaker's comments on being a spurned lover.
Other topics touched on in the book include the assimilation experiences of American Jews, their relationship to the Jews of Israel, and the pleasures and perils the narrator sees as inherent in being the son of a Jewish family.
Portnoy's Complaint is also emblematic of the times during which it was published. Most obviously, the book's sexual frankness was both a product of and an inspiration for the sexual revolution that was in full swing during the late 1960s. And the book's narrative style, a huge departure from the stately, semi-Jamesian prose of Roth's earlier novels, has often been likened to the stand-up performances of 1960s comedian Lenny Bruce.
uilt-edged insecurity is far more important when it comes to the making--and unmaking--of an American Jew than, say, chicken soup or chopped liver. For guilt is as traditionally American as Thanksgiving Day pumpkin pie and, at the same time, on native grounds as far as Jews are concerned: it was the Jews who originated that mother lode of guilt, the theological concept of original sin; it was a Jew who developed psychoanalysis, that clinical faith based on a belief in the transferability and negotiability of long-term debts and credits in guilt.
So, not surprisingly, a special blend of guilt-power usually fuels the American-Jewish character in fiction, sends him soaring to his manic highs and plummeting to his abject lows. Whether it is Salinger's Seymour or Bellow's Herzog or Malamud's Assistant (who, in fact, becomes a Jew just because of his guilt), almost formula-like the American- Jewish hero goes forth to confront the twisted root-causes of his guilt--only to flood his engine with the paralyzing second thoughts of the self-tormenting neurotic, the fringe-level psychotic. For unable to live with his guilt, he is also unable to conceive of living without it.
But while the American-Jewish novelist has thus had a subject, though he has been searching diligently, questing imaginatively, he has lacked an ideal form. Now, with "Portnoy's Complaint," Philip Roth ("Goodbye Columbus," "Letting Go," "When She Was Good") has finally come up with the existentially quintessential form for any American-Jewish tale bearing--or baring--guilt. He has done so by simply but brilliantly casting his American Jewish hero--so obviously long in need of therapy--upon a psychoanalyst's couch (the current American-Jewish equivalent of the confessional box) and allowed him to rant and rave and rend himself there. The result is not only one of those bullseye hits in the ever-darkening field of humor, a novel that is playfully and painfully moving, but also a work that is certainly catholic in appeal, potentially monumental in effect--and, perhaps more important, a deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious.
Since substantial chunks of "Portnoy's Complaint"--about two-thirds all together--have previously appeared in Esquire, Partisan Review, and New American Review, almost everyone should know by now that Alexander Portnoy, Roth's analysand, is both the worldly 33-year-old Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity for the City of New York (sic) and still another heimishe American-Jewish son and neverman, the victim of an endless childhood eternally wandering toward adulthood (sick). But because form so perfectly follows function Roth manages to evoke new whines out of all the old battles. And though his plot line at first seems as circuitous as a string of wasted 50-minute hours, soon it is evident that every curlicue is a real clue, and the story finally ties together with the epiphanous neatness of any patient's last gestalt.
"These people are unbelievable!" Portnoy complains of his parents early on to the ever-present, always silent analyst. "These two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time!" And he proceeds to recap in shticks and bits his urban eat-in-kitchen upbringing by them ("The very first distinction I learned. . .was not night and day or hot and cold, but goyishe and Jewish. . .Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew! It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jew! I happen also to be a human being!"
Yet for a lot his railing against his parents--his depiction of that old sentimental favorite, the Jewish Mother, as not only a downright guilt-giver but also a deft castrater; his caricature of her ever-popular silent-as-an-analyst partner, the Jewish father, as an uptight insurance agent and eunuch--Portnoy is still so compulsively ensnarled in the web of his relationship to them that at one moment he whimpers imploringly: "At this late date! Doctor, what should I rid myself of, tell me, the hatred. . .or the love?" Yet at almost the very next moment he bleats forth impassionedly all of his hang-up anguish: "Doctor Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life, and I'm living it in the middle of a Jewish joke! I am the son in the Jewish joke--only it ain't no joke! Please, who crippled us like this? Who made us so morbid and weak? Why, why are they screaming still, 'Watch out! Don't do it! Alex--no!' and why, alone on my bed in New York, why am I still hopelessly beating my meat?"
On one level, since few writers are as hip as Roth to the nuances of middle-class neuroses or as tuned in with such a show-biz sense of mimicry to the diction of the American Jewish milieu, Portnoy's past comes off as a kind of universal pop boyhood of the forties, with a Jewish accent and comic twist. On another level, since few writers are as explicit as Roth and given the justifiable mechanics implicit in a patient-analyst situation, Portnoy's adolescence is revealed with a rare candor: not only is his gnawing special sense of Jewishness--and guilt--completely detailed, but also his compulsive nonstop masturbatory rites of puberty and his first vain attempts to enter the adult world of heterosexuality are fully annotated.
As Portnoy matures--at least chronologically--he desperately wants to tear off his American-Jewish hair shirt, to let go, to live a life without mother and father, a sex life free and unfettered, without guilt, to be bad in other words ("Because to be bad, Mother," he apostrophizes, "that's the real struggle; to be bad--and enjoy it! That's what makes men of us boys, Mother. . .LET'S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!"). But instead he finds--or his analyst does--that "neither fantasy nor act issues in genuine sexual gratifications but rather in overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration."
However, if sexually stunted, psychologically doomed, Portnoy still makes a bravura run for it. His adventures--and misadventures--involve a penchant for unscenely masturbation, a fetish for untimely fellatio, and even the staging of a mini-orgy in Rome. He also manages to squeeze by a succession of picturesque girl friends whose nicknames are Jonsonian in their humor: The Pumpkin: a full-bodied but flat-chested Middle Westerner, "The first of the Antioch nymphs to go barefoot to class"; The Pilgrim: Supergoy. . .one hundred and fourteen pounds of Republican refinement, and the pertest pair of nipples in all New England"; and the pièce de résistance, the Monkey, who turns out to be more like a sexual lioness.
But what finally drives Portnoy to the analyst's couch is a traumatic sojourn in the State of Israel ("Hey, here we're the WASPS!"). For there he meets his bête noire, his undoer, a Jewish Pumpkin, physically reminiscent of his mother, whom he tries to ravage only to be rendered impotent in the process ("Doctor, maybe other patients dream--with me, everything happens. I have a life without latent content. The dream thing happens! Doctor! I couldn't get it up in the State of Israel! How's that for symbolism, bubi?")
And the novel ends at a beginning, with the straight-man analyst speaking his only line: "So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?"
I feel very much the same way about the ultimate significance of this much ballyhooed, eagerly awaited novel. If viewed as the apotheosis of a genre, the culmination of a fictional quest--and it is, I think, as I've tried to say, the very novel that every American-Jewish writer has been trying to write in one guise or another since the end of World War II--then it may very well be what is called a masterpiece--but so what? It could still also be nothing more than a cul-de-sac.
However, if by this definitive outpouring into a definitive vessel of a recurring theme, thus guilt (screaming, strident, hysterical, hyperbolic, hyperthyroid) has been successfully expatiated, and future American-Jewish novels will be all the quieter, subtler, more reflective and reasoned because of it, then this novel can truly be judged a milestone. For guilt in esthetic terms is every bit as debilitating and destructive and time-consuming a hang-up as in behavioral terms. And it is only by moving out beyond guilt, to the problems and turf implicit in adult independence and sovereignty, that any literature--or genre--can hope to begin to approach maturity.
Opening Line: “Portnoy’s Complaint. Noun. After Alexander Portnoy, born 1933. A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warrant with extreme sexual longings often of a perverse nature.”
Closing Line: “So.” said the doctor, “ Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
Quotes: "And doctor, your honor, whatever your name is, it seems to make no difference how much the poor bastard actually gets, for he is dreaming about tomorrow's pussy even while pumping away at today's!"
Rating: Very Good.

421. Oroonko – Aphra Behn

History: This novel was published in 1688. Researchers today cannot say whether or not the narrator of Oroonoko represents Aphra Behn and, if so, tells the truth. Scholars have argued for over a century about whether or not Behn even visited Surinam and, if so, when. On balance, it appears that Behn truly did travel to Surinam. The fictional narrator, however, cannot be the real Aphra Behn. For one thing, the narrator says that her father was set to become the deputy governor of the colony and died at sea en route. This did not happen to Bartholomew Johnson (Behn's father), although he did die between 1660 and 1664. It is also unlikely that Behn went to Surinam with her husband, although she may have met and married in Surinam or on the journey back to England. A socially creditable single woman in good standing would not have gone unaccompanied to Surinam. Therefore, it is most likely that Behn and her family went to the colony in the company of a lady.
Behn worked for Charles II as a spy during the outset of the Second Dutch War, ending up destitute when she returned to England, and even spending time in a debtors' prison, because Charles failed to pay her properly, or at all. She turned her hand to writing in order to survive, with remarkable success. She wrote poetry that sold well, and had a number of plays staged, which established her fame in her own lifetime. In the 1670s, only John Dryden had plays staged more often than Behn.
Oroonoko is now the most studied of Aphra Behn's novels, but it was not immediately successful in her own lifetime. It sold well, but the adaptation for the stage by Thomas Southerne made the story as popular as it became. Soon after her death, the novel began to be read again, and from that time onward the factual claims made by the novel's narrator, and the factuality of the whole plot of the novel, have been accepted and questioned with greater and lesser credulity. Because Mrs. Behn was not available to correct or confirm any information, early biographers assumed the first-person narrator was Aphra Behn speaking for herself and incorporated the novel's claims into their accounts of her life. It is important, however, to recognize that Oroonoko is a work of fiction and that its first-person narrator—the protagonist—need be no more factual than Jonathan Swift's first-person narrator, ostensibly Gulliver, in Gulliver's Travels, Daniel Defoe's shipwrecked narrator in Robinson Crusoe, or the first-person narrator of A Tale of a Tub.
She began to write extended narrative prose toward the end of her career. Published less than a year before she died, Oroonoko is one of the earliest English novels. Interest in it has increased since the 1970s, critics arguing that Behn is the foremother of British women writers.
Plot: Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave is a relatively short novel concerning the grandson of an Coromantin African king, Prince Oroonoko, who falls in love with Imoinda, the daughter of that king's top general. "Coromantee people" were Akan slaves brought from present-day Ghana, known for their rebellious nature.
Portrait of Aphra Behn, aged approximately 30, by Mary Beale
The king, too, falls in love with Imoinda. He gives Imoinda the sacred veil, thus commanding her to become one of his wives, even though she was already married to Oroonoko. After unwillingly spending time in the king's harem (the Otan), Imoinda and Oroonoko plan a tryst with the help of the sympathetic Onahal and Aboan. They are eventually discovered, and because she has lost her virginity, Imoinda is sold as a slave. The king’s guilt, however, leads him to falsely inform Oroonoko that she has been executed, since death was thought to be better than slavery. Later, after winning another tribal war, Oroonoko is betrayed and captured by an English captain, who planned to sell him and his men as slaves. Both Imoinda and Oroonoko were carried to Surinam, at that time an English colony based on sugarcane plantation in the West Indies. The two lovers are reunited there, under the new Christian names of Caesar and Clemene, even though Imoinda's beauty has attracted the unwanted desires of other slaves and of the Cornish gentleman, Trefry.
Upon Imoinda’s pregnancy, Oroonoko petitions for their return to the homeland. But after being continuously ignored, he organizes a slave revolt. The slaves are hunted down by the military forces and compelled to surrender on deputy governor Byam's promise of amnesty. Yet, when the slaves surrender, Oroonoko and the others are punished and whipped. To avenge his honor, and to express his natural worth, Oroonoko decides to kill Byam. But to protect Imoinda from violation and subjugation after his death, he decides to kill her. The two lovers discuss the plan, and with a smile on her face, Imoinda willingly dies by his hand. A few days later, Oroonoko is found mourning by her decapitated body and is kept from killing himself, only to be publicly executed. During his death by dismemberment, Oroonoko calmly smokes a pipe and stoically withstands all the pain without crying out.
Review: The novel is written in a mixture of first and third person, as the narrator relates actions in Africa and portrays herself as a witness of the actions that take place in Surinam. In the novel, the narrator presents herself as a lady who has come to Surinam with her unnamed father, a man intended to be a new lieutenant-general of the colony. He, however, dies on the voyage from England. The narrator and her family are put up in the finest house in the settlement, in accord with their station, and the narrator's experiences of meeting the indigenous peoples and slaves are intermixed with the main plot of the love of Oroonoko and Imoinda. At the conclusion of the love story, the narrator leaves Surinam for London.
Structurally, there are three significant pieces to the narrative, which does not flow in a strictly biographical manner. The novel opens with a statement of veracity, where the author claims to be writing no fiction and no pedantic history. She claims to be an eyewitness and to be writing without any embellishment or theme, relying solely upon reality. What follows is a description of Surinam itself and the South American Indians there. She regards the locals as simple and living in a golden age (the presence of gold in the land being indicative of the epoch of the people themselves). It is only afterwards that the narrator provides the history of Oroonoko himself and the intrigues of both his grandfather and the slave captain, the captivity of Imoinda, and his own betrayal. The next section is in the narrator's present; Oroonoko and Imoinda are reunited, and Oroonoko and Imoinda meet the narrator and Trefry. The third section contains Oroonoko's rebellion and its aftermath.
Opening Line: “I do not pretend, in giving you the history of this royal slave, to entertain my reader with the adventures of a feigned hero whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet’s pleasures; nor in relating the truth, design to adorn it with any accidents but such as arrived in earnest to him.”
Closing Line: “Yet, I hope, the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful and the constant Imoinda.”
Quotes: “I ought to tell you that the Christians never buy any slaves but they give them some name of their own, their native ones being likely very barbarous and hard to pronounce; so that Mr Trefry gave Oroonoko that of Caesar, which name will live in that country as long as that (scarce more) glorious one of the great Roman, for it is most evident he wanted no part of the personal courage of that Caesar, and acted things as memorable, had they been done in some part of the world replenished with people and historians that might have given him his due.”
Rating: Okay

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

420. The Voyage Out – Virginia Woolf

History: This is the first novel by Virginia Woolf, published in 1915.
Writing in 1926, E. M. Forster described it as "... a strange, tragic, inspired book whose scene is a South America not found on any map and reached by a boat which would not float on any sea, an America whose spiritual boundaries touch Xanadu and Atlantis" And, reviewing the book a decade earlier, he wrote this: "It is absolutely unafraid... Here at last is a book which attains unity as surely as Wuthering Heights, though by a different path.”
This book had a long and difficult gestation. It was written during a period in which Woolf was especially vulnerable. She suffered from periods of depression and at one point attempted suicide. The resultant work contained the seeds of all that would blossom in her later work: the innovative narrative style, the focus on feminine consciousness, sexuality and death. And there is more. "No later novel of Woolf's," said one critic, "will capture so brilliantly the excitement of youth." And also the excitement and challenge of life. "It's not cowardly to wish to live," says one old man at the end of the book. "It's the very reverse of cowardly. Personally, I'd like to go on for a hundred years... Think of all the things that are bound to happen!"
In 1981, Louise DeSalvo published an alternate, earlier version of The Voyage Out featuring its original title, Melymbrosia. Professor DeSalvo worked for seven years on the immense project of reconstructing the text of novel as it might have appeared in 1912, before Woolf had begun serious revisions. She reviewed more than 1,000 manuscript pages from Woolf's private papers, sometimes relying on organizational clues as small as the color of ink used or where the pen or pencil last left off writing. DeSalvo's Melymbrosia attempts to restore the text of the novel as Woolf had originally conceived it, which contained more candid political commentary on such issues as homosexuality, women's suffrage, and colonialism. According to Desalvo, Woolf was "warned by colleagues that publishing such an outspoken indictment of Britain could prove disastrous to her fledgling career". The work was heavily revised until it became the novel now known as The Voyage Out, which omits much of the political candor of the original. DeSalvo's edition was rereleased by Cleis Press in 2002.
Plot: Rachel Vinrace embarks for South America on her father's ship and is launched on a course of self-discovery in a kind of modern mythical voyage. The mismatched jumble of passengers provide Woolf with an opportunity to satirize Edwardian life. The novel introduces Clarissa Dalloway, the central character of Woolf's later novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Two of the other characters were modeled after important figures in Woolf's life. St John Hirst is a fictional portrayal of Lytton Strachey and Helen Ambrose is to some extent inspired by Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell. And Rachel's journey from a cloistered life in a London suburb to freedom, challenging intellectual discourse and discovery very likely reflects Woolf's own journey from a repressive household to the intellectual stimulation of the Bloomsbury Group.
Review: First published in 1915, The Voyage Out is Virginia Woolf's first novel. It begins as Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose embark on a sea voyage for South America. Throughout their voyage and once they reach land there are many characters that float in and out of the text. Indeed, one is not sure who the main characters are until halfway through the novel. Clarissa and Richard Dalloway, the main characters of Woolf's later novel Mrs. Dalloway, even make an appearance.
Once reaching land, Mrs. Ambrose along with her niece, Rachel, explore the environs and make friends with other tourists-notably with two young men, Hewet and Hirst. Here these four friends form several intertwining and interesting relationships that guide us through the rest of the story.
Woolf's style is striking in the almost exclusive use of dialog interspersed with short, vivid descriptions of the characters' inner thoughts. Through this innovative style she is able to communicate, among many other things, a candid and realistic portrayal of the act of falling in love and all emotions that come along with it-heartbreak and loss, desire and contentment, longing and questioning, quiet happiness and quiet despair.
Several interesting details in the novel will strike the modern reader, such as the almost total absence of interaction with the natives. Geographically, the location is supposed to be near the Amazon river system, but Woolf has imagined an Amazon where the natives speak a mix of Spanish and French, the mountains rise majestically out of the sea, and one lights the fire after dinner. While Woolf can easily be criticized for neglecting to research the technical details and for writing only about the upper classes and their manias, to dwell on these issues would be entirely beside the point.
Opening Line: “As the streets that lead from the Strand to the Embankment are very narrow, it is better not to walk down them arm-in-arm.”
Closing Line: “Across his eyes passed a procession of objects, black and indistinct, the figures of people picking up their books, their cards, their balls of wool, their work-baskets, and passing him one after another on their way to bed.”
Quotes: What did she feel? Did she love him, or did she feel nothing at all for him or for any other man, being, as she had said that afternoon, free, like the wind or the sea?
Rating: Wonderful!

419. Blindness – Henry Green

History: This book was published in 1926.
Plot: John Haye, a rich adolescent in his final year at an English boarding school is accidentally blinded. He returns to his country home to live with his stepmother. He befriends Joan, who lives with her alcoholic ex-minister father. His step-mother dispproves of Joan. They split up.
The description of the unlikely accident and the medical details are sparse and show no evidence of research or firsthand knowledge. (This was written in 1926 and writers didn't bother much with research then). I got the impression that Green had decided philosophically how someone would react to blindness and made his character's reaction fit that preconception.
It's the sort of English novel in which the only people with jobs are servants. Joan and her father live in abjects poverty (partly because of his expenditure in gin) but no one ever mentions the w- word.
I think you need some previous familiarity with English writing of the period to enjoy this. The first few chapters are set in an upper class boarding school, then the scene changes to a great country house with lots of servants around. It's Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell territory.
There are some great characters. The monstrous step-mother, blind in her own way, is a wonderful comic creation.The Prospero/Miranda relationship of Joan and her father is touching. The descriptions of rural scenes are wonderful.
He recovers at home, he is bed ridden for some months, accordingly depressed. His stepmother’s days are spent in Mrs Dalloway type fashion. His nanny is very upset by the accident and becomes obsessed with John.
Review: This is a very simple story about a pretty ordinary young man from the English gentry class who loses his eyesight in a tragic accident. Poor guy. Fortunately for the reader of Blindness, this accident does not turn John Haye into a saint.
Now, you've all seen books and articles and TV shows about unfortunate victims who adjust to their new state and become an inspiration to all about them - lead them to victory or clarify their understanding of the good life or something like that. If that's your cup of tea, “Touched by an Angel” is on soon.
Rather, this novel is for those who are interested in what blindness might actually be like, with or without eyes. Indeed, John starts out this novel with his sight intact, and uses it mostly to make foolish or cruel judgments about his fellow students, his dormitory manager, his family and his schoolwork. After his accident his powers of observation actually improve as far as his sensitivity to his environment is concerned, but his knowledge of himself and his fellow human beings remains pretty sparse.
His opinion of his stepmother changes every few seconds, whether she's with him or not. He meets a girl named Joan, falls hard for her, and tells himself the entire story of her life - all the while insisting upon calling her by the wrong name. He considers his country home desperately boring until he gets to London, by which time that same country home turns in his mind to a virtual paradise. This kid is a mess.
While John is thus kidding himself, of course, the characters who can see are doing just the same thing. John's stepmother can't make up her mind from moment to moment whether to marry John off or keep him with her, or what to do with him - or herself, for that matter. John's old nurse doesn't seem to realize whether or not John has changed at all from the time he was an infant. John's would-be girlfriend Joan, daughter of an alcoholic former parson, thinks of the local men as the more attractive if they look as though they could hurt her, and can't make up her mind whether she admires her father or loathes him. As for that alcoholic father himself - well, you get the idea. None of these people, even those with eyes, can see anyone as they are.
But the novel is more than just an exercise in cheap irony. Henry Green drew high praise from all of his contemporaries for at least one very important reason; he described life as exactly and honestly as possible. He may have created in John Haye a bit of a bonehead, and a self-indulgent bonehead at that, but he also created an amazingly clear world for him to live in and a beautiful way of describing it. And eventually, it's that same gift for genuine observation and sensitivity that saves John Haye from a completely self-pitying life and seems to give him some kind of redemption. In short, this is the story of a bonehead who learns to quiet his mind and just watch the world.
So Green restricted himself to plain facts - accurate description of the physical world, his characters' inner thoughts - and refrained from any authorial judgment of any of his people. He gave us true portraits of men and women from all social classes, with all their virtues and all their shortcomings. And in limiting his writing to mere reportage, he successfully guided his readers through a blind man's world and showed us the true meaning of blindness itself. No mean feat for a college undergraduate.
Benshlomo says, To see the facts is the beginning of wisdom.
Opening Line: “Diary of John Haye, Secretary to the Noat Art Society, and in J.W.P.’s House at the Public School of Noat.”
Closing Line: “It was the first thing he heard as he came back to the world, and he smiled at them.”
Quotes: “Have a drop of gin in your milk. That will make it all better.”
Rating: Good

Friday, September 9, 2011

418. Under the Volcano - Malcolm Lowry

History: This book is a 1947 semi-autobiographical novel by English writer Malcolm Lowry (1909–57). The novel as it is recognized today was finally finished in 1945 and immediately sent to many publishers. In late winter, while travelling in Mexico, Lowry learned the novel had been accepted by two publishing companies: Reynal & Hitchcock in the United States and Jonathan Cape in the United Kingdom. Following critical reports from readers, Cape had reservations about publishing and wrote to Lowry on 29 November 1945 asking him to make drastic cuts. Lowry's lengthy reply, dated 2 January 1946, was a passionate defense of the book in which he sensed he had created a work of lasting greatness: "Whether it sells or not seems to me either way a risk. But there is something about the destiny of the creation of the book that seems to tell me it just might go on selling a very long time." The letter includes a detailed summary of the book's key themes and how the author intended each of the 12 chapters to work, and has been included as an introduction in some editions.
There have been many editions of the book since 1947. In 1998 it was rated as number 11 on the list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century compiled by the Modern Library. TIME included the novel in its list of "100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present".
In 1940, Lowry hired an agent, Harold Matson, to find a publisher for the manuscript, but it was rejected many times. Although he continued refining it for years, this original 1940 version was later published in 1994 under the title The 1940 Under the Volcano.
In 1944, the manuscript was nearly lost in a fire at Lowry's shack in British Columbia. His second wife, Margerie, rescued the unfinished novel, but all of Lowry's other works in progress were lost in the blaze.
Plot: The novel tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British consul in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac (the Aztec name of Cuernavaca), on the Day of the Dead.
Surrounded by the helpless presences of his ex-wife, his half-brother and acquaintances, he descends into a mescal-soaked purgatory, moving inexorably towards his tragic fate.
His self-destructiveness reflects a spiritual struggle born of willful abnegation and passivity, a depressed, existential acquiescence to the futility of positive action.
On the Day of the Dead, 1 November 1939, Jacques Laruelle, a French film director, and Dr. Arturo Vigil, a Mexican physician, chat and relax over drinks at the Hotel Casino de la Selva on the outskirts of Quauhnahuac (Cuernavaca). They recall the events of a day, exactly one year earlier, but we learn few details other than that Vigil had had a horrible hangover and had been concerned about the health of "the Consul" with whom he had apparently been drinking.
Laruelle continues walking, avoiding his house and his unfinished packing. He turns instead toward town. To escape a sudden rainstorm, Laruelle takes refuge in a theatre showing Las Manos de Orlac.
A long unmailed letter Geoffrey had written to Yvonne in the spring of 1938 falls out of the book of plays. Laruelle reads it and we learn of Geoffrey and Yvonne's divorce, his hopes and dreams and despair. Laruelle burns the letter in the flame of a candle.
Yvonne returns to Quauhnahuac after a year's absence and her divorce from the Consul. She finds him at the Hotel Bella Vista bar drinking whiskey and engaged in a rather one-sided conversation with the bartender, Fernando.
Yvonne is dazed from her journey and the Consul is dazed from drink. They converse briefly and impersonally, but Yvonne is filled with unspoken thoughts and feelings.
They walk to the Consul's house at 52 Calle Nicaragua, they pause for a moment at a photograph of a disintegrating rock and Yvonne mentally compares the condition of the rock to their relationship. The Consul slips into a small shop for a quick drink while Yvonne waits outside. A child's funeral moves along the street.
The Consul reveals that his brother, Hugh, is staying with him and explains how Hugh has been trying to wean him from alcohol. Yvonne appears somewhat stunned at this news and asks if Hugh is aware of their divorce. They arrive at the house and are followed onto the grounds by a "hideous pariah dog."
Geoffrey and Yvonne walk up the pot-holed drive to the porch of his house; they are uncomfortable together and the best conversation they can manage is small talk. His thoughts also reveal the deep contradictions and complexity of his feelings for Yvonne. The Consul leaves briefly to receive a telephone call and when he returns, he hears Yvonne in the bathroom.
Seizing this opportunity, the Consul heads for a nearby cantina. On his way up the Calle Nicaragua, he falls, faints, or passes out in the middle of the road. His thoughts revolve around the implication that sometime earlier Hugh and Yvonne had had an affair.
The Consul is refreshed by his offer of a long "emergency" drink of Irish whiskey. He returns to the house and to Yvonne lying half asleep in her old room. They talk of going away together, but Geoffrey finds excuses and avoids making a commitment. He describes their missed connection in Mexico City the night before Yvonne left him. They are momentarily drawn together and on the verge of a "romantic interlude," but the Consul breaks it off and abruptly leaves the room.
He drinks "fiercely" from the whiskey bottle and sitting alone on the porch, thinks of Yvonne and considers his situation. Then as the twin volcanoes come into view, the Consul falls asleep.
While the Consul naps, Hugh and Yvonne go for a walk. They rent horses from the stables of the Casino de la Selva and amble through the countryside accompanied by two foals and a dog that guards against snakes. Hugh is very attracted to Yvonne and is happy being with her.
As they ride, Hugh thinks of a friend, Juan Cerillo, worked to improve the lives of Mexican peasants. His recollections allude to events in Mexican history.
Finally, Hugh asks Yvonne whether she is or is not divorced from his brother, and whether she has or has not returned to him. She confirms their divorce but is ambivalent about her present situation.
The Consul awakes from a dream with a "horripilating hangover thunderclapping about his skull" and rushes to the garden where he has hidden a bottle of tequila. While his "familiar" voices alternately encourage and protest, he drinks. The voices cease. Sitting in the bathroom, the Consul hallucinates. He sees insects crawling everywhere and closing in on him.
As they walk into town, Hugh watches Yvonne with admiration and longing. They meet the mailman who empties his bag on the street in an unsuccessful search for a letter for the Consul. He leaves "disappointedly," then returns happily with the letter. It is a card from Yvonne that had been mailed just after their separation more than a year earlier. The Consul hands it to Hugh and tells him to read it: "Darling, why did I leave? Why did you let me? Expect to arrive in the U.S. tomorrow, California two days later. Hope to find a word from you there waiting. Love. Y."
Yvonne wants to go to the fiesta in Tomalin. She convinces The Consul and Hugh to go with her. They ride the bus to Tomalín over rough terrain and pot-holed road making it very difficult to talk. They ride with their own thoughts for company.
They pass a man, an Indian, lying at the side of the road and the driver stops the bus to investigate. The man appears to be dying and Hugh wants to examine him to see if he can be of assistance, but a Mexican passenger and the Consul stop him. The Consul explains that touching him may lead to legal complications. The pelado, however, removes the Indian's hat and reveals a severe head wound. A sum of money has been placed under the man's collar.
Everyone stands and talks about what may have happened and what could or should be done. Hugh and the Consul notice a horse, perhaps the Indian's, tied up to a hedge. It is branded with the number seven. The driver wants to leave, but Hugh returns to the dying man who reaches out him and mutters: "compañero."
Armed vigilantes suddenly arrive and push Hugh back onto the bus where he is restrained by the Consul. They resume the journey to Tomalín. Hugh is disturbed by the incident and, in his thoughts, he questions his own action and the behavior of the other passengers. He wonders if anyone or anything would have made a difference.
At the Arena Tomalín, Yvonne is upset with herself for having cried over their inability to help the dying man on the roadside. The action in the ring is lethargic, everyone appears rather bored. A second bull is brought in and, much to the consternation of the Consul, Hugh climbs into the ring and mounts it. The bull becomes very animated, and Hugh's admirable riding entertains the crowd. While Hugh is occupied, Yvonne pleads with Geoffrey to reunite with her and go away. He agrees - almost enthusiastically. They sit together holding hands and affirm their love for each other.
At the restaurant-bar Salón Ofélia, the Consul orders mescal. While Yvonne and Hugh prepare to swim in the pool, he drifts off into various memories. He becomes resentful They soon return, and gets into an argument with Hugh. He runs from the bar towards the forest and the path to the Farolito.
Yvonne and Hugh follow the Consul into the forest. They continue through the forest as a storm approaches. Yvonne observes the stars. They remind her of eternity.
Yvonne and Hugh reach the Hotel y Restaurant El Popo, where she imagines seeing the Consul. They read a menu on which the Consul had left an IOU and had written a fragmented draft of a poem.
As they return to the path and Yvonne hears what sounds like pistol shots from the direction of Parián.
The terrain is very rough and at one point Yvonne, who is some distance ahead of Hugh, must climb a ladder over a large log blocking the path. Amid the thunder and lightening, she hears ominous crashing noises approaching through the forest, and as she attempts to descend the ladder, Yvonne falls.
A stampeding horse, branded with the number seven, breaks through the brush and crashes into Yvonne, trampling her. As she dies, Yvonne sees her and Geoffrey's imaginary house by the sea being consumed in flames.
In the Farolito, the Consul rinks steadily. The barman, Diosdado, brings him a packet of letters from Yvonne that the Consul had left behind sometime earlier. He moves to a small side room and reads several passages filled with her anguish and pleading. His response is ambivalent.
A young prostitute leads him into another inner room. The Consul has sex with her then feels that now it is impossible for him to return to Yvonne.
Outside the Farolito, the Consul spots the horse, branded with the number seven, he had seen at the roadside beside the dying Indian. A policeman challenges him and forces him back into the cantina. Two additional policemen arrive and the Consul is questioned menacingly about his interest in the horse, his identity and purpose in Mexico.
The Consul recognizes that he is in danger, and despite warnings from concerned patrons in the bar, he is unable to act and continues drinking steadily. The situation deteriorates. The Consul tells the police his name is William Blackstone. They find the copy of Hugh's telegram in his jacket and accuse him of lying, of being a Jew, a spy, and an anarchist.
When the police take Yvonne's letters, the Consul is angered. He strikes at them and accuses them of killing the Indian. He demands the return of his "papers." The police take him outside and continue threatening him. As the Consul approaches the horse once again, one of the policemen draws his pistol. He shoots the consul three times.
Thunder crashes. The horse rears, breaks free and plunges into the forest.
The Consul falls to the ground remarking: "Christ, this is a dingy way to die." He imagines himself climbing Popocatepetl with Hugh and Yvonne, then feels himself falling …
Review: Under the Volcano chronicles the last day in the life of the British Consul to Quauhnahuac, Mexico. The surface story recounts how his ex-wife, Yvonne, and his half-brother, Hugh, try to pull him from the alcoholic funk he's fallen into, and in the course of the day, they visit several locations in and around Quauhnahuac.
The descriptive prose makes the setting come alive, and you're left with the feeling of actually seen some of these places. The mini parks, the ruins of Maximilian's Palace, the cinema, the backyard of the Consul's house, and the great volcano, Popocatepetel, which keeps appearing and disappearing, growing and shrinking, as they wander around the landscape - all these things become very real under Lowry's brilliant examination.
Inspired by Joyce, Lowry's book has several parallels with Ulysses. Except for the first chapter, it all takes place in a single day -- November 1, 1938 (the Mexican holiday called "The Day of the Dead.") There are three principal characters, two male, one female, who wander around the landscape, etc. However, Ulysses is an extremely difficult read, and all the interesting parts are below the surface; Under the Volcano is an easy read, and quite satisfactory without looking deeper.
A lot has been written about the deeper meanings of the book, of course, but the most obvious seems to be the allegory to Europe on the edge of war. In this view, the Consul represents the old Europe heading to its destruction despite the efforts of idealists to save it. Or perhaps more accurately, the senseless decline of the Consul to his death parallels the senseless descent of Europe into the destruction of World War II. Likewise as the day proceeds the bright hope of the morning darkens as the sun declines into the hopeless dark and storms that come with the night. And the very first chapter - the one set exactly one year later - is darkened by a tremendous storm -- a storm which seems to represent the European war then already in full career.
Opening Line: "Two mountain chains traverse the republic roughly from north to south, froming between them a number of valletys and plateaus."
Closing Line: "Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine."
Quotes: "A black storm breaking out of season! That was what love was like, he thought, love which came too late."
"A sense of a shared, a mountain peace seemed to fall between them; it was false, it was a lie, but for a moment it was almost as though they were returning home from marketing in days past."
"Nothing in the world was more terrible than an empty bottle! Unless it was an empty glass."
Rating: Excellent

417. Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

History: First published in 1956, this is James Baldwin's second novel. Giovanni's Room is noteworthy for bringing complex representations of homosexuality to a reading public with empathy and artistry, thereby fostering a broader public discourse of issues regarding same-sex desire.
One theme of Giovanni's Room is social alienation. Susan Stryker notes that prior to writing Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin had recently emigrated to Europe and "felt that the effects of racism in the United States would never allow him to be seen simply as a writer, and he feared that being tagged as gay would mean he couldn't be a writer at all." In Giovanni's Room, David is faced with the same type of decision; on the surface he faces a choice between his American fiancee (and value set) and his European boyfriend, but ultimately, like Baldwin, he must grapple with "being alienated by the culture that produced him."
Baldwin admitted that his publisher first told him to "burn" the book because the theme of homosexuality would alienate him from his Negro readership. However, upon publication critics tended not to be so harsh thanks to Baldwin's standing as a writer. Giovanni's Room was ranked number 2 on a list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels compiled by The Publishing Triangle in 1999.
Ian Young points out the novel portrays homosexuality and bisexuality as uncomfortable and uncertain ways of living, respectively. Young also points out that despite the novel's "tenderness and positive qualities" it still ends with a murder.
Plot: David, in the South of France, is about to board a train back in Paris. His girlfriend Hella, to whom he had proposed before she went to Spain, has returned to the United States. As for Giovanni, he is about to be guillotined.
David remembers his first experience with a boy, Joey, who lived in Brooklyn, too. The two bonded and eventually had a sexual encounter during a sleepover. The two boys began kissing and making love; the next day David left, and a little later he took to bullying Joey in order to feel like a real man.
David now lives with his father, who is prone to drinking, and his aunt, Ellen. The latter upbraids the father for not setting himself as a good example to his son; David's father says that all he wants is for David to become a real man. Later David comes home drinking too, and drinks and drives once, ending up in an accident. Back home the two men talk, and David talks his father into letting him skip college and get a job instead. He then decides to move to France to find himself.
After a year in Paris, penniless, he calls Jacques, an older homosexual acquaintance, to meet him for supper and ask for money. In a prolepsis, Jacques and David meet again and talk about Giovanni's fall. Back into the plotline, the two men go to Guillaume's gay bar. They meet Giovanni, the new bartender, whom Jacques tries to make a pass at, until he gets talking with Guillaume. Meanwhile, David and Giovanni become friends. Later, they all go to a restaurant in Les Halles; Jacques enjoins David not to be ashamed to feel love; they eat oysters and drink white wine. Giovanni recounts how he met Guillaume in a cinema, how the two men had dinner together because Giovanni wanted a free meal. He also explains that Guillaume is prone to making trouble. Later, the two men go back to Giovanni's room and they have sex.
David moves into Giovanni's small room. They broach the subject of Hella, about whom Giovanni is not worried, but who reveals the Italian's misogynistic prejudices about women and the need for men to dominate them. David then briefly describes Giovanni's room, which is always in the dark because there are no curtains and they need their own privacy. He goes on to read a letter from his father, asking him to go back to America, but he does not want to do that. The young man walks into a sailor; David believes he thinks David is a gay man, though it is unclear whether this is true or the sailor is just staring back at David. A subsequent letter from Hella announces that she is returning in a few days, and David realizes he has to part with Giovanni soon. Setting off to prove to himself that he is not gay, David searches for a woman with whom he can have sex. He meets a slight acquaintance, Sue, in a bar and they go back to her place and have sex; he does not want to see her again and has only just used her to feel better about himself. When he returns to the room, David finds a hysterical Giovanni, who has been fired from Guillaume's bar.
Hella eventually comes back and David leaves Giovanni's room with no notice for three days. He sends a letter to his father asking for money for their marriage. The couple then walks into Jacques and Giovanni in a bookshop, which makes Hella uncomfortable because she does not like Jacques's mannerisms. After walking Hella back to her hotel room, David goes to Giovanni's room to talk; the Italian man is distressed. David thinks that they cannot have a life together and feels that he would be sacrificing his manhood if he stays with Giovanni. He leaves, but runs into Giovanni several times and is upset by the "fairy" mannerisms which he is developing and his new relationship with Jacques, who is an older and richer man. Sometime later, David walks into Yves and finds out Giovanni is no longer with Jacques and that he might be able to get a job at Guillaume's bar again.
The news of Guillaume's murder suddenly comes out, and Giovanni is castigated in all newspapers. David fancies that Giovanni went back into the bar to ask for a job, going so far as to sacrifice his dignity and agree to sleep with Guillaume. He imagines that after Giovanni has compromised himself, Guillaume makes excuses for why he cannot rehire him as a bar-tender; in reality they both know that Giovanni is no longer of interest to Guillame's bar's clientele since so much of his life has been played out in public. Giovanni responds by killing Guillame in rage. Giovanni attempts to hide, but he is discovered by the police and sentenced to death for murder.
On the day of Giovanni's execution, David is in his house in the South of France. The caretaker comes round for the inventory, as he is moving out the next day. She encourages him to get married, have children, and pray.
Hella and David then move to the South of France, where they discuss gender roles and Hella expresses her desire to live under a man as a woman. David, wracked with guilt over Giovanni's impending execution, leaves her and goes to Nice for a few days, where he spends his time with a sailor. Hella finds him and discovers his homosexuality, which she says she suspected all along. She bitterly decides to go back to America. The book ends with David's mental pictures of Giovanni's execution and his own guilt.
Review: Whoever has read James Baldwin's first novel, "Go Tell It on the Mountain," or his collection of essays and sketches, "Notes of a Native Son," knows him to be one of our gifted young writers. His most conspicuous gift is his ability to find words that astonish the reader with their boldness even as they overwhelm him with their rightness.
The theme of "Giovanni's Room" is delicate enough to make strong demands on all of Mr. Baldwin's resourcefulness and subtlety. We meet the narrator, known to us only as David, in the south of France, but most of the story is laid in Paris. It develops as the story of a young American involved both with a woman and with another man, the man being the Giovanni of the title. When a choice has to be made, David choose the woman, Hella.
David tells the story on a single night, the night before Giovanni is to be guillotined as a murderer. He tells of his life in Giovanni's room, of deserting Giovanni for Hella and of making plans to marry her, of the effect of this on Giovanni, and of the effect of Giovanni's plight on his own relations with Hella. Mr. Baldwin writes of these matters with an unusual degree of candor and yet with such dignity and intensity that he is saved from sensationalism.
Much of the novel is laid in scenes of squalor, with a background of characters as grotesque and repulsive as any that can be found in Proust's "Cities of the Plain." But even as one is dismayed by Mr. Baldwin's materials, one rejoices in the skill with which he renders them. Nor is there any suspicion that he is working with these materials merely for the sake of shocking the reader. One the contrary, his intent is most serious. One of the lesser characters, in many ways a distasteful one, tells David that "not many people have ever died of love." "But," he goes on, "multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour--and in the oddest places!--for the lack of it." This is Mr. Baldwin's subject, the rareness and difficulty of love, and, in his rather startling way, he does a great deal with it.
Opening Line: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”
Closing Line: “Yet, as I turn and begin waking toward the waiting people, the wind blows some of them back on me.”
Quotes: “And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no-one to watch, no penalties attached – it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.”
Rating: Okay

416. Phineas Finn – Anthony Trollope

History: The novel was first published as a monthly serial from October 1867 to May 1868 in St Paul's Magazine. It is the second of the "Palliser" series of novels.
Plot: Finn is the only son of a successful Irish doctor, who sends him to London to become a lawyer. He proves to be a lackadaisical student, but being pleasant company and strikingly handsome to boot, he makes many influential friends. One of them, a fellow Irishman and politician, suggests he stand for Parliament in the coming election.
At first, the idea seems absurd. Finn is supported solely by a modest allowance from his father, but a stroke of luck clears his path. One of his father's patients is Lord Tulla, a nobleman who controls a little borough that can be contested cheaply. Lord Tulla has had a falling out with his brother, the long-time officeholder. As a result, while the staunchly Tory lord will not support the Whig Finn, neither will he hamper him. Convincing his sceptical father to provide the funds needed, Finn wins his seat by a small margin.
The closest of his London friends is his mentor, Lady Laura Standish, the daughter of the prominent Whig politician Lord Brentford. As their relationship develops, Finn considers asking for her hand in marriage, despite the great social and financial gulf between them. Lady Laura senses this, but despite her partiality for the man, monetary considerations and her own political ambitions convince her to marry the dour, extremely wealthy Robert Kennedy instead.
At first devastated, Finn soon recovers and becomes enamoured of a lovely heiress, Violet Effingham. This proves to be awkward, as both Lady Laura and Lord Brentford vehemently want her to marry (and hopefully tame) Lord Brentford's estranged son, the savage Lord Chiltern. In addition, Lady Laura encourages Finn to become acquainted with her brother. Finn and Chiltern become fast friends, which makes the situation even more uncomfortable. When Chiltern finds out that Finn is also courting Violet, he becomes infuriated and unreasonably demands that Finn withdraw. When he refuses, Chiltern insists on a duel. This is held in secret on the Continent and Finn is slightly wounded by Chiltern's shot. Eventually, Violet has to choose between her two main suitors; she somewhat fearfully decides in favour of her childhood sweetheart, Chiltern.
Meanwhile, Finn's parliamentary career gets off to a rocky start. Overawed by his august surroundings, he delivers a somewhat incoherent maiden speech. Eventually though, he becomes accustomed to his situation and grows adept at parliamentary proceedings. All is not smooth sailing however. When new elections are called, Finn is in a dilemma. Lord Tulla has reconciled with his brother and Finn has no chance of re-election. At this point, fortune favours him once again.
Late one night, Finn and Mr. Kennedy, now the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, depart Parliament at the same time. When they go their separate ways, Finn notices two men nearby who follow his colleague. Suspicious, he takes a shortcut and arrives in time to foil an attempt to garrotte and rob Kennedy. In gratitude for saving the life of his son-in-law, Lord Brentford offers him the seat for the pocket borough of Loughton. With the nobleman's support, the election is a foregone conclusion.
Finn's heroic feat exacerbates the growing rift between Lady Laura and her husband. Their temperaments clash; Mr. Kennedy disapproves of his wife's interest in politics. Moreover, to her intense dismay, Lady Laura finds she has great difficulty suppressing her true feelings for Finn and Kennedy becomes suspicious. Eventually, she becomes so desperately unhappy, she flees to the Continent, where English law cannot force her to return to her husband's household.
In the meantime, Finn makes the acquaintance of a charming, clever foreigner, Madame Max Goesler, the young and beautiful widow of a rich Jewish banker. More materially, he is appointed to a well paid government position, where he excels. It seems as if he is finally secure.
However, Lord Brentford learns of the duel with his son and withdraws his support for the next election. Second, Finn finds himself opposed to his own party on a particularly thorny issue. His scruples force him to resign his office.
With his political career in shambles, Finn seeks consolation from Madame Max. In an unexpected development, she offers him her hand and her wealth in marriage. Finn is greatly tempted, but in the end, returns to Ireland to marry his faithful, long-time sweetheart, Mary Flood Jones. As a parting reward for his hard work, his party obtains a comfortable sinecure for him in the Irish government.
Review: Phineas Finn is a book of many virtues and one unfortunate flaw. The flaw lies in the ending, of which I can say nothing here without giving away a bit of the plot. Let me just say that the ending is a bit of a "tack on." Trollope himself confessed in his autobiography that he botched the ending, and explains that when he decided to write a second novel starring Phineas Finn, he awkwardly had to correct the mistakes he made in the ending of the previous book.
The virtues of the book lie in part in its presentation of the social complexities of the British upper class in 1860s. While a political history of the period could explain the various ins and outs of the major pieces of legislation dealt with at the time, Trollope shows us how many individuals at the time actually felt about these issues from the inside. In this way, Trollope performs a service that no historian ever could. Virtually all the major political figures of the time, from Gladstone to Disraeli appear under thinly veiled aliases.
But the true heart of the book is Trollope's great characters. They do improper things, and feel improper emotions. Our hero falls in love with one woman, then another, feels attraction to another, and falls in love with yet another, and in general fails in his role as a great romantic hero. A woman marries someone she doesn't love, yet retains feelings for another, and suffers from the threat of a bad marriage. Another woman is attracted to two men, and must decide which. Two close friends love the same woman. I find all this emotional complexity to be extremely compelling.
Trollope's most compelling and interesting characters are nearly all female. In the book, Lord Chiltern seems cardboardish and unbelievable, the title character likable but not terribly vivid. But whenever Lady Laura, or Madame Goesler, or Violet Effingham take the stage, the novel comes to life. This is not unique to this novel. In nearly all his books, Trollope's most compelling characters are female.
Opening Line: “Dr. Finn, of Killaloe, in county Clare, was as well known in those parts,--the confines, that is, of the counties Clare, Limerick, Tipperary, and Galway,--as was the bishop himself who lived in the same town, and was as much respected.”
Closing Line: “What was the nature of the reply to Lord Cantrip the reader may imagine, and thus we will leave our hero an Inspector of Poor Houses in the County of Cork.”
Quotes: "She knew how to allure by denying, and to make the gift rich by delaying it."
Rating: Good.

415. Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott

History: This book was written in 1819.
The location of the novel is centred upon South Yorkshire and North Nottinghamshire in England. Castles mentioned within the story include Ashby de la Zouch Castle (now a ruin in the care of English Heritage), York (though the mention of Clifford's Tower, likewise a still standing English Heritage property, is anachronistic, it not having been called that until later after various rebuilds) and 'Coningsburgh', which is based upon Conisbrough Castle, in the ancient town of Conisbrough near Doncaster (the castle also being a popular English Heritage site). Reference is made within the story to the York Minster, where the climactic wedding takes place, and to the Bishop of Sheffield, despite the Diocese of Sheffield not being founded until 1914. These references within the story contribute to the notion that Robin Hood lived or travelled in and around this area. Conisbrough has become so dedicated to the story of Ivanhoe that many of the streets, schools and public buildings are named after either characters from the book or the 12th-century castle.
The modern-day conception of Robin Hood as a cheerful, decent, patriotic rebel owes much to Ivanhoe.
"Locksley" becomes Robin Hood's title in the Scott novel, and it has been used ever since by the authors of various books and screenplays dealing with the fictional outlaw. Scott appears to have taken the name from an anonymous manuscript — written in 1600 — that employs "Locksley" as an epithet for Robin Hood. Owing to Scott's decision to make use of the manuscript, Robin Hood from Locksley has been transformed for all time into "Robin of Locksley", alias Robin Hood. (There is, incidentally, a village called Loxley in Yorkshire.)
Scott makes the 12th-century's Saxon-Norman conflict a major theme in his novel. The conflict was first mentioned as a possible influence on the development of Robin Hood folklore by the 18th-century writer and editor Joseph Ritson. It remains a pervasive element in more recent retellings of the outlaw's legend through Scott's literary legacy.
Conversely, Scott shuns the late 16th-century convention of depicting Robin as a dispossessed nobleman (the Earl of Huntingdon). This, however, has not prevented Scott from making an important contribution to the noble-hero strand of the legend, too, because some subsequent motion picture treatments of the outlaw's adventures (most notably a lavish 1922 silent film and 1991's box-office success Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) give Robin traits that are characteristic of Ivanhoe. Both Ivanhoe and Robin, for instance, are returning Crusaders. They have quarreled with their respective fathers, they are proud to be Saxons, they display a well-developed sense of justice, they support the rightful king even though he is of Norman-French ancestry, they are adept with weapons, and they each fall in love with a "fair maid" (Rowena in one case, Marian in the other).
Robin's familiar feat of splitting his competitor's arrow in an archery contest appears for the first time in Ivanhoe.
Plot: Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe is disinherited by his father Cedric of Rotherwood for supporting the Norman King Richard and for falling in love with the Lady Rowena, Cedric's ward and a descendant of the Saxon Kings of England. Cedric had planned to marry her to the powerful Lord Aethelstane, pretender to the Saxon Crown of England, thus cementing a Saxon political alliance between two rivals for the same claim. Ivanhoe accompanies King Richard on the Crusades, where he is said to have played a notable role in the Siege of Acre.
The book opens with a scene of Norman knights and prelates seeking the hospitality of Cedric. They are guided there by a palmer, who has recently returned from the Holy Land. The same night, seeking refuge from inclement weather and bandits, the Jew Isaac of York arrives at Rotherwood. Following the night's meal, the palmer observes one of the Normans, the Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert, issue orders to his Saracen soldiers to follow Isaac of York after he leaves Rotherwood in the morning and relieve him of his possessions.
The palmer then warns the Jewish moneylender of his peril and assists in his escape from Rotherwood. The swineherd Gurth refuses to open the gates until the palmer whispers a few words in his ear, which turns Gurth as helpful as he was recalcitrant earlier. This is but one of the many mysterious incidents that occur throughout the book.
Isaac of York offers to repay his debt to the palmer by offering him a suit of armour and a war horse, to participate in the tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouch where he was bound. His offer is made on the surmise that the palmer was in reality a knight, having observed his knight's chain and spurs (a fact that he mentions to the palmer). Though the palmer is taken by surprise, he accepts to the offer.
The story then moves to the scene of the tournament, which was presided over by Prince John of England. Other characters in attendance are Cedric, Aethelstane, the Lady Rowena, Isaac of York, his daughter Rebecca, Robin of Locksley and his men, Prince John's advisor Waldemar Fitzurse, and numerous Norman knights.
On the first day of the tournament, a bout of individual jousting, a mysterious masked knight, identifying himself only as "Desdichado" (which is described in the book as Spanish for the "Disinherited One", though actually meaning "Unfortunate"), makes his appearance and manages to defeat some of the best Norman lances, including Bois-Guilbert, Maurice de Bracy, a leader of a group of "Free Companions" (mercenary knights), and the baron Reginald Front-de-Boeuf. The masked knight declines to reveal himself despite Prince John's request, but is nevertheless declared the champion of the day and is permitted to choose the Queen of the Tournament. He bestows this honour upon the Lady Rowena.
On the second day, which is a melée, Desdichado is chosen to be leader of one party. Most of the leading knights of the realm, however, flock to the opposite standard under which Desdichado's vanquished opponents fought. Desdichado's side is soon hard pressed and he himself beset by multiple foes, when a knight who had until then taken no part in the battle, thus earning the sobriquet Le Noir Faineant (or the Black Sluggard), rides to the Desdichado's rescue. The rescuing knight, having evened the odds by his action, then slips away. Though Desdichado was instrumental in the victory, Prince John being displeased with his behaviour of the previous day, wishes to bestow his accolades on the vanished Black Knight. Since the latter has departed, he is forced to declare the Desdichado the champion. At this point, being forced to unmask himself to receive his coronet, Desdichado is revealed to be Wilfred of Ivanhoe himself, returned from the Crusades. This causes much consternation to Prince John and his court who now fear the imminent return of King Richard.
Because he is severely wounded in the competition and because Cedric refuses to have anything to do with him, Ivanhoe is taken into the care of Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of Isaac, who is a skilled healer. She convinces her father to take him with them to York, where he may be best treated. The story then goes over the conclusion of the tournament including feats of archery by Locksley.
Meanwhile, de Bracy finds himself infatuated with the Lady Rowena and, with his companions-in-arms, makes plans to abduct her. In the forests between Ashby and York, the Lady Rowena, Cedric, and Aethelstane encounter Isaac, Rebecca, and the wounded Ivanhoe, who had been abandoned by their servants for fear of bandits. The Lady Rowena, in response to the requests of Isaac and Rebecca, urges Cedric to take the group under his protection to York. Cedric agrees although he is unaware that the wounded man is Ivanhoe. En route, the party is captured by de Bracy and his companions and taken to Torquilstone, the castle of Front-de-Boeuf. However, the swineherd Gurth, who had run away from Rotherwood to serve Ivanhoe as squire at the tournament and who was recaptured by Cedric when Ivanhoe was identified, manages to escape.
The Black Knight, having taken refuge for the night in the hut of a local friar, the Holy Clerk of Copmanhurst, volunteers his assistance on learning about the captives from Robin of Locksley, who had come to rouse the friar for an attempt to free them. They then besiege the Castle of Torquilstone with Robin's own men, including the friar and assorted Saxon yeomen whom they had manage to raise due to the hatred of Front-de-Boeuf and his neighbour, Philip de Malvoisin.
At Torquilstone, de Bracy expresses his love for the Lady Rowena, but is refused. In the meantime, de Bois-Guilbert, who had accompanied de Bracy on the raid, takes Rebecca for his captive, and tries to force his attentions on her, which are rebuffed. Front-de-Boeuf, in the meantime, tries to wring a hefty ransom, by torture, from Isaac of York. However, Isaac refuses to pay a farthing unless his daughter is freed from her Templar captor.
When the besiegers deliver a note to yield up the captives, their Norman captors retort with a message for a priest to administer the Final Sacrament to the captives. It is then that Cedric's jester Wamba slips in disguised as a priest, and takes the place of Cedric, who then escapes and brings important information to the besiegers on the strength of the garrison and its layout.
Then follows an account of the storming of the castle. Front-de-Boeuf is killed while de Bracy surrenders to the Black Knight, who identifies himself as King Richard. Showing mercy, he releases de Bracy. De Bois-Guilbert escapes with Rebecca while Isaac is released from his underground dungeon by the Clerk of Copmanhurst. The Lady Rowena is saved by Cedric, while the still wounded Ivanhoe is rescued from the burning castle by King Richard. In the fighting, Aethelstane is wounded while attempting to rescue Rebecca, whom he mistakes for Rowena.
Following the battle, Locksley plays host to King Richard. Word is also conveyed by de Bracy to Prince John of the King's return and the fall of Torquilstone. In the meantime, de Bois-Guilbert rushes with his captive to the nearest Templar Preceptory, which is under his friend Albert de Malvoisin, expecting to be able to flee the country. However, Lucas de Beaumanoir, the Grand-Master of the Templars is unexpectedly present there. He takes umbrage at de Bois-Guilbert's sinful passion, which is in violation of his Templar vows and decides to subject Rebecca to a trial for witchcraft, who he thinks has cast a spell on de Bois-Guilbert. She is found guilty through a flawed trial and pleads for a trial by combat. Bois-Guilbert, who had hoped to fight as her champion incognito, is devastated when the Grand-Master orders him to fight against Rebecca's champion. Rebecca then writes to her father to procure a champion for her.
Meanwhile Cedric organises Aethelstane's funeral at Kyningestun, in the midst of which the Black Knight arrives with a companion. Cedric, who had not been present at Locksley's carousal, is ill-disposed towards the knight upon learning his true identity. However, King Richard calms Cedric and reconciles him with his son, convincing him to agree to the marriage of Ivanhoe and Rowena. Shortly after, Aethelstane emerges – not dead, but having been laid in his coffin alive by avaricious monks desirous of the funeral money. Over Cedric's renewed protests, Aethelstane pledges his homage to the Norman King Richard and urges Cedric to marry Rowena to Ivanhoe to which Cedric finally agrees.
Soon after this reconciliation, Ivanhoe receives word from Isaac beseeching him to fight on Rebecca's behalf. Upon arriving at the scene of the witch-burning, Ivanhoe forces de Bois-Guilbert from his saddle, but does not kill him. However, the Templar dies "a victim to the violence of his own contending passions," which is pronounced by the Grand Master as the judgment of God and proof of Rebecca's innocence. King Richard, who had left Kyningestun soon after Ivanhoe's departure, arrives at the Templar Preceptory, banishes the Templars and declares that the Malvoisins' lives are forfeit for having aided in the plots against him.
Fearing further persecution, Rebecca and her father leave England for Granada. Before leaving, Rebecca comes to bid Rowena a fond farewell. Finally, Ivanhoe and Rowena marry and live a long and happy life together, though the final paragraphs of the book note that Ivanhoe's long service ended with the death of King Richard.
Review: This is a book of chivalry and bravery and derring-do and heraldry and true hearts. Good overcomes evil and the heroes save the day - and the women, and even the loathsome Jew. It's close, though. The reader meets characters from English folklore and has a grand time doing so.
Sir Walter Scott wrote this book almost 200 years ago. He then used King James' English for the characters' conversations. It often sounds like Shakespeare when they are speaking. Many of the scenes are long and full of detail, especially early in the book. (Did Scott get paid by the word like Dickens and Dumas did?) Most of the characters are larger than life - but some are dead on.
Opening Line: "In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster."
Closing Line: "With the life of a generous, but rash and romantic monarch, perished all the projects which his ambition and his generosity had formed; to whom may be applied, with a slight alteration, the lines composed by Johnson for Charles of Sweden---
His fate was destined to a foreign strand,
A petty fortress and an "humble" hand;
He left the name at which the world grew pale,
To point a moral, or adorn a TALE."
Quotes: "Chivalry!---why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection---the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant ---Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword."
Rating: Good.

414. Vineland – Thomas Pynchon

History: This book was published in 1990, Vineland, the central locale of the novel, is a fictional small town in California's Anderson Valley (perhaps based upon Boonville). Vineland may be a play on the word "Hollywood", a reference to the first Viking settlement in North America, Vinland, or a reference to Andrey Vinelander, a character in Vladimir Nabokov's Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. Still others contend that the title refers to Vineland, New Jersey or a "Vinland the Good" mentioned in a Frank O'Hara poem. However, the most obvious explanation is that the title is a reference to the area in which the novel is set, which is near California's grapevine-filled Wine Country.
Plot: The story is set in California, United States, in 1984, the year of Ronald Reagan's re-election. Through flashbacks by its characters, who have lived the sixties in their youth, the story accounts for the free spirit of rebellion of that decade, and describes the traits of the fascist Nixonian repression and its War on drugs that clashed with it; and it articulates the slide and transformation that occurred in the traits of American culture between the two 1960s to the 1980s. It is a tale of cultural tumult, social upheaval, rock music and drug use.
Zoyd Wheeler, father of beautiful teen-age Prairie, whose mother, Frenesi Gates, went off with the arch-baddie Brock Vond, Federal prosecutor and psychopath, collects mental disability checks from the state by jumping through plate-glass windows once a year. The novel begins with such a jump, and thereafter fragments into myriad different narrative shards (but, at the end, the pieces all leap off the floor and fit miraculously together, as if a film were being run backward). Prairie is obsessed with her vanished mother, and so is everyone else in the novel: so is Zoyd, so is Brock Vond, who was her lover and who turned her from a radical film maker, the child of a blacklisted and Wobbly family, into an F.B.I. sting specialist, and turned her toward her own dark side. Frenesi, meanwhile, is out of sight, having been axed by Reaganomics from the slashed F.B.I. budget, so that at the center of this novel by the master of vanishing acts is a largely invisible woman, whom we learn about through the eyes of others.
Vond appears to be after Prairie, maybe to use her against Frenesi, so Zoyd, as he dives for cover, sends her into hiding as well. Prairie's odyssey takes her closer and closer to Frenesi, by way of a band called Billy Barf and the Vomitones, whom she follows to a mob wedding where she meets her mother's old friend, the Ninjette Darryl Louise (DL) Chastain, who was once obliged, by the mob boss Ralph Wayvone, to try to assassinate Brock Vond by using, during the sexual act, the Ninja Death Touch, also known as the Vibrating Palm, which the victim never feels and which kills him a year later, while you're having lunch with the police chief - except that Vond, skilled in eluding death (''He's the Roadrunner,'' says Wayvone, admiringly), manages to send along in his place the Japanese private eye Takeshi Fumimota, who gets the Vibrating Palm by mistake; and, as if that weren't enough trouble for Takeshi, he's also being chased by the same malign forces that arranged for the Chipco stomping, which he investigated.
And anyhow, through DL and Takeshi, Prairie gets to find the doors to her mother's past, on computer records and in film archives and in the memory of Frenesi's old friends, and we reach the story's dark heart, namely the events that took place in the 1960's at Trasero County's College of the Surf, which renamed itself, after the fashion of those loon-panted days, the People's Republic of Rock and Roll. And we hear, as Prairie hears it, how her mother betrayed the leader of this little revolution, who rejoiced in the name of Weed Atman, and who now, after death, still roams the forests of northern California as a Thanatoid, a member of the undead, unable to find peace. And eventually Prairie's search for Frenesi, and Brock's search for Prairie and Frenesi (which takes him, along with a huge strike force, to Vineland) come to a climax, complete with helicopters and Thanatoids and family reunions and an old woman and an old man who can remove your bones and leave the rest of you alive. You get the picture.
Review: So, he's back, and the question that occurs to you on finishing ''Vineland'' is, what took him so long? Because this doesn't feel like a book written to break a block; it isn't congested or stop-start or stiff; matter of fact, it's free-flowing and light and funny and maybe the most readily accessible piece of writing the old Invisible Man ever came up with.
It's 1984 in Vineland County, in northern California. We're talking mass culture here, and mall culture, too, because this is a 1984 flowing with designer seltzer ''by Alaia and Blass and Yves,'' and the malls have names like Noir Center (as in film noir) and the mall rats have names like Che. And, in this 1984 that Orwell could never have imagined, the skies contain marauders who can remove people from commercial airliners in midair, and a research lab belonging to a ''shadowy world conglomerate'' named Chipco can be stomped into Totality, flattened beneath a gigantic and inexplicable animal footprint, size 20,000 or thereabouts. This 1984 is also Ronald Reagan's re-election year, and that, for all the leftover hippies and 60's activists and survivors and casualties, could mean it's time for the ''last roundup.''
Opening Line: “Later than usual one summer morning in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler drifted awake in sunlight through a creeping fig that hung in the window, with a squadron of blue jays stomping around on the roof.”
Closing Line: “It was Desmond, none other, the spit and image of his grandmother Chloe, roughened by the miles, face full of blue-jay feathers, smiling out of his eyes, wagging his tail, thinking he must be home.”
Quotes: . . . but at the distance she, Flash, and Justin had now been brought to, it would all be done with keys on alphanumeric keyboards that stood for weightless, invisible chains of electronic presence or absence. If patterns of ones and zeroes were "like" patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by a long strings of ones and zeroes, then what kind of creature could be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be up one level, at least -- an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being's name -- its complete dossier might take up a considerable piece of history of the world. We are digits in God's computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to sort of a standard gospel tune, And the only thing we're good for, to be dead or to be living, is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God.
Rating: Excellent