Childhood’s End (1953)

One thing Arthur C. Clarke wants to make sure his readers know is that humanity has not proven itself to be worthy of much praise, and especially not for intellectual ingenuity. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wanted the reader to know that without the intervention of the alien monoliths, prehistoric men would still be throwing feces at each other and jumping around like apes. We are lowly beasts: expendable, transcendable, unremarkable.

In the Odyssey series, the meager intellectual reasoning capabilities of mankind, and mankind’s physical form limitations, are brought to the forefront. Dave Bowman becomes a beam of light, the monoliths devour Jupiter, and one day in the distant future they will presumably return to destroy us. This is how the 4th book ends…who can guess, really, what will happen after the narrative has ended. My best guess is that in 4001, the Monoliths come and eat up Earth too.  The evidence from the series suggests this is a high probability.

In Childhood’s End, which actually precedes 2001 by a good 10 years, Clarke presents the reader with yet another instance of how humanity has managed to wear itself out. A space ship appears out of no where, “manned” by unseen alien “Overlords” who force Earthlings to be ethical and humane, and who never reveal their true reason for coming. By the end, the truth is told and it is a grim truth.

(Note to the reader: assume that all posts are spoiler alerts!)

The truth is that humanity is being purged of its telepathically sensitive children and once they’ve been assimilated into the collective “Overmind” from another planet, Earth will implode.

It’s a bummer, yes. Earth is destroyed. All of the people, plants, and things on the planet will be gone within 100 years of the Overlords landing. This is why they did not state their business at the interstellar border crossing.  Customs & Immigration must’ve been on hiatus that day.

So…humanity’s gone…ok…there was NOTHING they (we) could do about it…it was going to happen whether anyone knew about it or not…better not to know it’s coming, maybe.  Ultimately, it was pointless for humanity to struggle against anything.  The Overlords had fixed all of the planet’s woes and tendencies toward unethical behavior. Life was good. But life was also over. The Overlords knew this. They knew their mission. They knew what the fate of the Earth was.  It wasn’t their first mission.

So, as it turns out, this story isn’t about humanity and Earth. It’s about the Overlords. It’s about the Overlords who are being used to perpetuate this interstellar telepathic wrangling of minds.  It’s about how they’re being forced to do this under duress. It’s about how they’re waiting, biding their time until they can figure out a way to be free. It’s about always struggling, constantly struggling against a system that is intent upon oppression. It’s about waiting until the right moment, when you’re fully prepared to fight, to pull out your secret weapon. It’s about never giving up. It’s about never truly admitting to yourself that 2+2=5 though you’ve been in and out of Room 101 for your whole life.

I feel sorry for humanity as a whole. But I have a lot of hope that the Overlords, whoever they (we) are, will one day find the tool they need to break their bonds, to ascend from the cave and into the light of day. I have hope that one day the Overlords won’t be working for the man.  Hope.

One last thing I’d like to add is that after reading this novel, the Odyssey series, and the first two RAMA books, I am noticing some major tropes: museums (the importance of collections and artifacts), telepathy, Destroyers-of-Planets/Planet Eaters, the ubiquity of human ineptitude, the use of interlocutors, prehistoric alien visitations, and superior alien intelligence.  For what it’s worth, Mr. Clarke is telling us something.

Elmer Gantry (1927)

One thing I will say, for sure, about Sinclair Lewis is that he is a good story teller. He develops the narrative very well around a particular individual, providing a lot of interesting sidetracks to contribute to a fuller narrative.  In the case of Elmer Gantry, he uses a lot of narrative development to provide a relatively broad view of the character of Elmer Gantry and the circles in which he rambles. For instance, the small town Baptist congregation, the Baptist Seminarians, the Evangelical movement, the life of a salesman, the metropolitan Methodist congregation, the hypocrisy of Elmer’s life; all of these are dealt with, and more, in great detail.

But it is too obvious to the reader that Elmer is a hypocrite who is less invested in his personal salvation than he is in his reputation and living up to his expected, oratorical potential; otherwise, we wouldn’t have been treated to all of the sordid details of Elmer’s two-faced life.

So what is it exactly that Lewis is telling the reader about Elmer and the world he lived in? It’s not just that hypocrisy exists with the Clergy. This is obvious in this novel. We all know this is true. I doubt anyone, anymore at least, looks at the Clergy and automatically thinks Purity. We all know that the more repressed they are, the more wild they are.  Perhaps in the 1920s people were still shocked by this information. Unfortunately, today we are more jaded and have come to expect the worst.

I think that reading this novel today, we have to look at it in terms of how we interpret and deal with our current perceptions of religious hypocrisy and the individuals who perpetuate it.  It’s not that Elmer was so bad and tried to act like he was so good; it’s that there was a system in place that supported, advised, and encouraged him to go against his very nature.

In the process of preaching salvation and damnation for others, Elmer essentially denied himself salvation because he clearly didn’t believe in God, though he persecuted his atheistic college buddy, Jim Lefferts, exactly for that. Elmer didn’t believe in God any more than Jim did, but Elmer was able to manipulate his way through the world of evangelism in a way that allowed for his own atheism to not be an issue. If he truly believed all the fire and damnation that he was preaching, then he would not have been such a sinner.  This is an obvious point.  Lewis can’t possibly have written a 400+ page book just to tell us this.

The larger problem was not Elmer’s individual hypocrisy, it was the system that engendered and perpetuated it. When I think of Elmer Gantry the individual, and of all of the preachers and evangelical ministers who helped Elmer along the way to his late-greatness, I think of Patrick Bateman (American Psycho 2000). Perhaps, dear reader, you may see this as a stretch, but it isn’t really.

Patrick Bateman was a pretty disturbed individual who lived a public life that was quite different from his private life. The final scene of the film shows Bateman confessing his murderous sins to his colleagues only to have them not believe him. In other words, despite the moment of catharsis (i.e. confession) for Bateman, and his desperate plea for help, the world around him didn’t care (or was in just as much denial as he was). The world around him essentially supported the level of denial that Bateman had been living in.  It is the system itself that both creates and perpetuates Bateman’s ability to continue, should he choose to do so, his murderous tendencies.  Of course, the viewer must also consider the very real possibility that Bateman never killed any of those people, and that it was all in his head the entire time (i.e. he’s just a psycho and not a murdering psycho).

But if we consider the first possibility as the most probable message/metaphor, then we must consider that the system itself allows individuals within it to do aberrant things, and it is the system itself that is in need of further analysis. This is why Elmer Gantry is like American Psycho: because both stories provide the reader/viewer with a dysfunctional system that allows individuals within it to run wild.

It’s an interesting thought at least.

The last thing I’d like to say about this novel is that I really and truly did not like Sinclair Lewis’s referencing of himself and his other novels (Babbitt, Main Street) within the novel itself, and I found this literarily distasteful and pointless (though Elmer ended up in the city of Zenith, the same setting as Babbitt, etc.). There were also quite a few editorial/proofreading errors throughout the edition I read and frequently I felt like it was a reflection on his writing style. I will give him the “good narrative” accolade, but I am not yet ready to endow him with a “good writer” award. Someone like Samuel Beckett can get away with poor grammar and confusing sentence structure, because it’s intentional, but someone at Signet should have done a better job of proofing Mr. Lewis’s copy!

 

 

A Thousand Splendid Suns (2008)

I haven’t read a book this quickly since Into Thin Air, which I read in 2 days. This one took me about 4 days. What was so compelling about it? It’s hard to not keep reading when tragedy and suffering are around every corner!  Especially when it’s women who are suffering. Women at the hands of men, and things men do to mankind.

This is a story about the choices people make, the actions they take or don’t take, and the choices made for them; it’s about how the world around them keeps moving, sometimes in their favor, sometimes not. It’s also a story about the world of men/mankind and politics and mankind’s penchant for causing suffering over ideological claims. This is a story that is trying to tell the reader about real people whose everyday lives are affected directly, and yet not, by the turmoil of the world around them. It is a very sad story. But it is a happy one.

I knew I would be pulled into this novel when within the first 20-or-so-pages, tears came to my eyes.  This novel reminds me a lot of The Grapes of Wrath, and the choice Rosasharn makes in the end. As a matter of fact, this entire novel, to me, is permeated by that same pathos that Steinbeck is trying to convey through Rosasharn’s actions.  It is a reminder of the perseverance of women and the lengths to which they are willing to go to take care of their children, their friends, their loved ones, their fellow man.

This is a novel I would love to send out to people with a note attached saying: “This is what mothers go through for their children.” I am not a mother (yet) but I feel closer to the idea of motherhood than I ever have been. It is a scary thought, just to consider the motherhood option, much less being a mother in a war-torn country, where bombs have been raining down since the 1980s, and oppression inside the home, for some, has been a mainstay for time immemorial.  But in many ways, motherhood in this novel is a blessing. It is a way to find and create unconditional love. That is motherhood. Unconditional love and the endurance of suffering.  Motherhood is suffering from the beginning if you think about it: birth is painful. Love hurts and causes suffering. Death hurts and causes suffering. Life is suffering. Motherhood is life. Motherhood is suffering.

Rosasharn and Laila have a lot in common. Rosasharn breastfeeds a dying stranger to give him nourishment when she can give literally nothing else to the world. But she can give life, and she does without flinching, without hesitating, without being asked. And Laila endures the unimaginable in her unanesthetized caesarian delivery of Zalmai. All for life. All for the love of life. All hard to believe because “we” have not had the opportunity to be faced with such options. This is the core. This is the base the ethicists refer to. This is the factor-X we attempt to understand and describe. It is there, when all else is stripped away and there are no other choices to be made. But choice is still present.

I feel sorry for the women in this novel. They have been exploited and abused by men. But some of the men in this novel have redeeming qualities, and the choices they have made have been tainted by cultural expectations.  Rasheed represents the bottom of the barrel (selfish, patriarchal, violent, hiding behind the comforts of cultural convenience, oppressive), Jalil represents a step above that (compassionate with the unfortunate circumstance of having internalized certain cultural limitations), and Tariq represents the ideal: love for love’s sake, unconditional, enduring, long-suffering, truly compassionate.  The reader sees them all: the ‘regular’ men of the Afghanistan described by Hosseini. The reader doesn’t get a good glimpse of the men behind the wars, but then again, the bombs and the killings are just about all we need to understand them.

I think it’s important that we see regular people doing regular things, whatever they may be for their particular place and time. These are my favorite types of novels because regular people read these books and glean something out of them to use in their regular, everyday lives.

What do I take from this book? A sense of comfort that when I disagree with my husband, he doesn’t punch me square in the chest and shove a pistol in my mouth. A sense of anxiety that though my personal reality is basically thriving, the world around me is moving at such a pace that its suffering isn’t noticed over the speeches and the outbursts and the rhetoric. A sense of resolution about motherhood: that whatever suffering is required, will be endured for the love of life and of love.  A sense of understanding that suffering is part of the human condition.

Rama II (1989)

I lodge a formal complaint against Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee for the first 100 pages of this novel because of the excessive amount of narrative space taken up with character development. And before I leave that topic behind to pursue the actual gems of this novel, I’d like to point out that even after the 100 pages of narrative have come and gone, the reader is left without any narrative description or action of the actual space voyage from Earth to Rama II. One minute, the reader is learning about the corruptible natures of Francesca and Dr. Brown, the next minute, they’ve already docked with Rama II.  Why not 50 pages of character development, 50 pages of the journey to Rama II, and the rest the way it already is?  It’s a moot point, I guess. But complaint, lodged!

The rest of the novel was just what I was hoping for: lots of new discoveries; lots of tension (thanks to the excessive, yet unresolved character traits learned about in the first 100 pages!) between crewmen and their varying perspectives on what’s to be done with and about Rama II.  Reading this book was a bit like watching Twin Peaks. I say this because in Twin Peaks, David Lynch presents the audience with something to confound (the White Lodge and the Black Lodge); this/these place(s) are shown but not explained. And the viewer is only to be let down by his or her expectations when watching the film, Fire Walk With Me, when nothing about the White or Black Lodge is resolved.

How is this relevant to RAMA II, you ask?  It’s relevant because something tells me Gentry/Clarke, with their RAMA quadrilogy, are playing a little game with the reader. Giving us tidbits here and there, like the White Room on RAMA II, where Richard and Nicole find the odd, human artifacts (the reader will recall 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Dave Bowman wakes to find himself in the blue room with simulacra of real, human objects–the food not real food, etc.)  Same on RAMA  II: lots of simulacra with no real, human substance. Even toward the end, Richard and Nicole see simulacra of the crew walking around, mere shadows of their real selves. Of course, the reader will recall back to Rendezvous with RAMA when the first exploration into the other hemisphere (across the cylindrical sea) showed human artifacts encased in hermetically sealed cases. Well, RAMA II just amped it up, I suppose, by recreating AND reanimating.  It is proposed that the first RAMA vessel had intercepted images of human culture through radio waves, and had created those objects (like a hair brush), but by the time RAMA II came around, whatever technology the Ramans possessed had taken things to the next level by allowing for the possibility of “life” for those objects. Something tells me the Ramans are collectors, roaming through the universe collecting and improving upon their own reanimations (like perhaps with the spider biots or the avians???).

This reminds me of my first introduction to the idea of postmodernism: in a Science Fiction class as an undergrad taught by a SF scholar. We read Asimov, Lem, Delany, Bester, Orwell, and more. And we were told about the basics of cyberpunk and postmodernism. One day in class we got to watch a film by the Survival Research Laboratories (Thank you, once again, oh holy Storming the Reality Studio for helping me find what I was looking for!), where the skinned corpses of rabbits and dogs, or possibly goats, were being reanimated.  Provocative. Profound. And perhaps, perhaps, this is what Clarke/Lee will be getting at with all this replication and (re)animation…I should say (re)animation rather than re-animation, because the only possible re-animation occuring in RAMA II would be if the Ramans reanimated Dr. Takagishi, who is sitting currently, stuffed in a corner in the White room…but there are still 2 books left in this series!  It’s a pretty sound prediction, I think.

So what do I actually have to say about this novel, RAMA II? (I seem to be diverted quite a lot on this post).  Aside from the 100 page fiasco at the beginning, it is a good story. It is a reminder to the reader that the ‘reality’ of the truth of the universe is a lot bigger than we can currently perceive, and that even in the future, Clarke/Lee predict we will always be fearful of what we don’t and can’t understand. But the true mavericks out there, willing to enter the belly of the beast, and be stuck there, will reap the rewards for a humanity too stupid and backwards and fearful of something smarter than us.  It is a reminder that mob mentality is always ignorant, and always makes the wrong choices. But individuals, individuals who make choices, are more likely on the right track.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)

I’ve been sitting on this Orwellian treasure for a few years. Every so often I get an urge to go to a used bookstore and buy up all I can find of a particular author…and then I proceed to not read any of the books for a very long time. What is wrong with me? I hear it’s a common problem, at least.

Well, sometimes it’s fate that causes this to happen.

As it turns out, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is about a young man, Gordon Comstock, who has some major issues with getting a “real job” because of his dire hatred of money and the capitalistic infrastructure that keeps society “going.”  This is an ironic book for me to read because of my own “real job” issues and so I thought the time to read this book is now, or never!

So I picked it up, hoping to gain some insight into my own situation. After all, Orwell is known for a little moralizing, and it’s always nice to find yourself nestled snugly inside his every-man/woman.  I got what I was looking for, and I also got a nice reminder of Orwell’s criticism of his own society.

Gordon Comstock, after suffering for about four years at poverty level, working as a bookstore associate (though he is an aspiring, published, small-time poet), gets himself into some trouble by getting his girlfriend pregnant. After four years of quite militantly defying all-things-bourgeois, he VERY SURPRISINGLY relents completely to the middle class life and even resorts to ordering the dreaded houseplant, aspidistra, the one thing he’s loathed more than money. This is disturbing but not altogether unexpected, given what the reader is left with at the end of 1984: Winston Smith is sitting drinking Victory Gin, after having suffered through Room 101, only to have ultimately relented to the Inner Party Ideals.  Both men in these cases have tried to push through the immense pressures that their respective societies/authorities have thrust onto them; both put up a good fight; and both ultimately relent and, perhaps worst of all, accept.

I think the most glaring aspect of this novel is how similar the two narratives are in terms of Gordon Comstock and Winston Smith. Clearly Gordon Comstock was a precursor to the sentiments and character traits that Orwell wanted to portray with Winston Smith.

Perhaps the saddest part of this novel is reading the publisher’s (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) description of it on the back: “Despite its poignancy and merciless wit, hope does break through in this book’s happy ending, a tribute to the stubborn virtues of ordinary people, who keep the aspidistra flying.”

NO! You fools! There is NO HOPE!  There is NO HAPPY ENDING!  That’s the point!  There is only falling prey to capitalism and consumerism and the unhappy hum-drum existence of bourgeois homogeneity!   Are we then supposed to believe that Winston Smith is happy after having been tortured and re-brainwashed and sent to wait to be killed by the Inner Party at some undisclosed time? No! We have to look at Winston Smith and pity him his dilemma. Same with Gordon Comstock. We, as thoughtful readers, should pity him his newfound re-acceptance of consumption after all he’s been through.  The publisher should be ashamed for writing such unilluminated copy.

What I learned from this book is that giving in, after militantly standing by your ideals, is the easy, fool’s way out; is the Winston Smith way out. And who can look at Winston Smith and say “I wanna be that guy”?  No way. I’ll go with Braveheart.

The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Taken from my film blog: http://cinematophiliac.wordpress.com/2009/05/10/the-grapes-of-wrath-novel-1939/

As my faithful readers know (thank you!), this is a blog devoted entirely to analyzing film. And, I normally stick pretty closely to the unspoken tenets of only writing about films. But once before on this blog, I ventured into writing about Arthur C. Clarke’s Odyssey Tetralogy because of the corresponding films and my overpowering desire to write about the books in a place where I knew it would be read. So I suppose I justify my actions now in that same way.

Now, I haven’t watched the 1940  Henry Fonda/John Ford film version yet because I like to read the book first and then watch the film, but I did just add it to the top of my Netflix queue.  But, I feel compelled to write about the novel right now because I just finished reading it this morning and it evoked a particular reaction in me.

I don’t know if I had the same reaction as every one else who has read this novel or not. The older I get, the more I realize how similar we all react to things. So what I say about this, or anything else I write about on this blog, is just what comes out: untainted, unfiltered.

I’ll get to my point in a bit but I’d like to build up to it by explaining that the reason I picked this novel up at the Library was because it’s a classic and I’d never read it. I’ve started to feel ashamed lately because of my lack of experience reading some of our great American classics.  I didn’t specifically pick the book up because I thought it had some relevance to today’s “economic hard times” as we keep hearing on the news…now, after reading The Grapes of Wrath, I know the real hard times is yet to come, folks!  (A side effect of reading this novel is that you want to write in Okie dialect too).

But as soon as the novel began, I started seeing the connection between the state of affairs in the novel and what we’re experiencing today: big businesses and banks taking the land and livelihoods away from the American people in order to turn a bigger profit.    But by the end of the novel, in the last paragraph actually, it really hit home for me that we’re not any where near the level of desperation and human suffering that Steinbeck was describing. I know this for a few reasons.

I know this because we’re still taking vacations and planning weddings; we’re still shopping online for iTunes; we’re still filing sexual harassment lawsuits; we’re still protesting gay marriage rights; we’re still having parties at our houses and inviting friends and feeding them all night long.

We’re nowhere near the level of desperation Steinbeck describes. I agree with you that that is an obvious statement. But until you’ve gone through the novel and you’ve let your imagination run wild with the characters and their plight, I think it’s too easy to say to yourself as a reader in 2009: the same thing’s happening now!

No, the same thing isn’t happening now. We keep hearing “these tough economic times” every time we turn around. Yeah, we are experiencing tough economic times. Yeah, many of us don’t have jobs or have jobs that don’t come close to paying the bills. Yeah, I know. I’m living it too.  But the connotation that the media is trying to convey with “these tough economic times” is something much more grande than we can fathom in 2009.

I know this because I know what Rose of Sharon did in that last paragraph of the novel, and I know what the penultimate chapter was foreshadowing. Don’t worry, I won’t give it away. In the paragraphs leading up to the final paragraph of the novel, I didn’t realize what was happening. I stopped and re-read it a few times before I got to the end because I couldn’t figure it out. Then, I finished the last paragraph and I knew.  And I cried. I can’t remember the last time I cried reading a novel.

I cried first because of the beauty of human nature. And the confusing part became clear.  Then I cried because of my confusion and I realized that’s the difference between us and them: we can’t fathom it, and Rose of Sharon and Ma both knew what had to be done.

Despite the 4-5 weeks it took me to read this 450 page novel (I won’t lie:  it’s long and it’s depressing, and that makes it hard to read for long durations), I made it to the end and found it to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. At first, the rotating descriptive chapters are tedious because the reader hasn’t been brought thoroughly enough into the Joad Family story line yet.  But as the novel progresses, the descriptive chapters provide much-needed details and foreshadowing about the general state of affairs for migrants.  And by the penultimate chapter, it’s clear that it’s foreshadowing beyond the last words of the novel. It’s a lot like reading The Odyssey:  the narrative seemingly just ends without giving the reader the satisfaction of a truly happily-ever-after for Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus, but the reader has to recall the prophecies and the omens and then he or she will know what is to come for them, and the reader can take some peace from that because the end is known.

Steinbeck has done the same thing for his readers but his Odysseus and Penelope and Telemachus will not grow old on Ithaca, and that is part of the sadness and beauty of this novel. We do not know what will specifically happen with Tom, but we know what happened to Casy. We do not specifically know what will happen with the rest of the Joad family, but we know what the penultimate chapter foreshadows. And we do not know what will specifically become of Rose of Sharon but we know that she is the embodiment of all that is good and pure in the human soul.

People relying on people who are in the same state of being as they are. People being good to others because they are good people, not because they’re being forced to for some ulterior motive.  People recognizing their own suffering in others and doing their best to assuage the pains of life.

This novel moralizes while also de-emphasizing the necessity for a fear of God. In fact, I think it is one of the best aspects of the book, and it is why Casy is in the narrative: to show that goodness and moral-ethical behavior do not have to be followed by God’s wrath. In fact, Steinbeck makes a point of showing that good judgment is just good judgment. (And there’s plenty of suffering for the living without having to worry about suffering after death).  And sometimes when wrong is being done to you, and you react in a way to protect yourself, bad things happen accidentally. I don’t think Steinbeck is justifying murder or violence; just the opposite. I think he’s justifying human behavior in the face of highly unethical treatment and oppression: the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.  I think he’s pointing out that if you push men to the brink, they will have no other choice (i.e. Tom) than to protect themselves, and at the same time, they will make the right choice (i.e. Rose of Sharon). When you’ve stripped man of his autonomy, you’ve opened up the can of worms on yourself; but when the can is empty, you’ll find the core of human nature.

Steinbeck was writing about real people.  We’re not quite real yet.  Nope. Far from it.  But I know there are Roses of Sharon out there waiting in many of us.

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove (1999)

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Coveis by Christopher Moore, who seems to be following in the footsteps of the great Tom Robbins.  This novel was fun. But it was also making a comment on the over reliance, in American culture, on anti-depressants.  You get a feeling, while reading it, that maybe Moore was channeling Valley of the Dolls with all of its pills, a.k.a. ‘dolls’, when he was writing it.  He also hits on sexual behavior, from the normal to the utterly absurd and aberrant. 

I think this novel is a good reminder about paying attention to life. Many of the inhabitants of Pine Cove, CA  are sedated, Huxley-soma-style, on medication doled out by their lazy psychiatrist and their sexually deviant pharmacist.  Profit and apathy drive their businesses of pushing pills, until something bad happens. Then all hell breaks loose, and turns out nobody needed the pills in the first place. Well, that part of the narrative isn’t truly tied up by the end, but the reader must assume that the psychiatrist made a major error in putting thousands of people onto Xanax, Prozac, etc.

The centerpiece of the novel was Steve, the enormous mutant sea creature who affects the libido of anyone or anything within a few mile radius of him.  He brings out the primal in everyone. He doesn’t repress like the medication. He doesn’t keep the ego in balance. And I think that’s the point.  But, at the same time, the primal instincts Steve brings out also lead to a lot of death and destruction because Steve literally eats people. 

In a silly way, with a smooth and inviting narrative, Moore was trying to pull off a major moral tale about balance, preconceptions/prejudices/stereotypes, human behavior, and relearning an enjoyment for life.

A Wild Sheep Chase (1982)

This is the fourth Haruki Murakami novel I’ve read. I’ll rank it 2nd, behind Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World only because I like the more cyberpunk narrative of HB.  A Wild Sheep Chase is full of the mystical, detective elements that Murakami is famous for. And, I was glad to see the Sheep Man again, who is in Dance, Dance, Dance (1988).  NOW I understand a little bit more about who the Sheep Man is, though it’s still not entirely clear.

I love it when I read something AFTER that helps me understand something I’ve already read. I have the same sentiment about Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey because I read it after watching Kubrick’s film and the novel (and the rest of the quadrilogy of books) helps make the final scenes of the film make a lot more sense.

I will honestly say that I didn’t realize A Wild Sheep Chase was part of a trilogy before I read it, but apparently the first two of the series are hard to find and maybe not even translated into English or something. That’s okay.

Once the protagonist finds his way to the Rat’s country house, I think we have Murakami at his finest: isolation, mysticism, trust in friendship.  Sometimes Murakami puts his characters in holes to exemplify the isolation, but in this case, it was a pastoral scene with no one for miles and an harsh and isolating impending winter to attempt to escape from before it was too late.

I’m interested in Murakami because, like some of my other favorite writers, he writes about regular people with regular problems that somehow turn out to be connected to otherworldly things. Muriel Spark frequently does this and it is one of her most endearing qualities as a writer, besides all the blackmail she writes about.

I think I will have to read the rest of Murakami’s translated literature before I will ever come to a determination about what his cryptic endings mean. I have struggled with the same with Muriel Spark, and keep coming back for more too. There are worse things to spend time doing.

As a side note, I wrote about this novel in relation to Twin Peaks on my film blog.

The Stranger, Camus (1942)

I haven’t updated this blog with my readings lately. For what reason, I know not, because I have been reading a lot since my last post.

So we’ll start with the most recent. I just finished The Stranger. It reminded me a lot of Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, although Spark’s novel was published in 1970.  So I should say that now that I’ve read The Stranger, The Driver’s Seat reminds me of it!  I’ll get to that more in a bit.

I was impressed with the poesy of Matthew Ward’s translation of The Stranger. His introduction states that he maintained the integrity of Camus’ short sentences. This tactic speaks well against the curtness of Meursault’s character because he gets to the point and merely says what’s on his mind in the shortest way possible, because that’s natural. 

Meursault reminds me of Lise (or Lise reminds me of Meursault) from The Driver’s Seat because both are apathetic to the world around them, and seemingly detached from what the reader would perceive as the real world, or a more fitting perception of reality. I sometimes think that we all assume that everyone has the same basic sense of reality but it is the great authors who remind us that is not the case.

In Lise’s case, she is an automoton; she works in an office, keeps a meticulously sterile apartment, and seemingly has no “life.” She would not be classified as a loser, per se, but she is definitely not on the high end of the scale of those who relish life, or even pay attention to it, on a daily basis.  Meursault is the same, he seems to go through his life without ever stopping to smell the roses. His interactions with Marie, his girlfriend-fiance, are indicative of this. When she asks him to marry her, he says okay, but that if someone else was to ask him, he’d be just as likely to marry that girl too; he told her he didn’t love her but if she wanted to marry him, he would be fine with that.  His utter detachment from all emotions creates a major problem for him that he does not realize until he is in his cell for months.

The same for Lise: she is so detached from the world around her, from her own emotions and the emotions of others, that the reader has to wonder what is the point of even living. Well, that’s the point Spark is trying to make because Lise goes on a trip and her goal of this trip is to find someone to murder her. She finds someone to do it and the novel ends.

There are many literary characters that fit this m.o. of detachment and/or apathy toward life.  Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov from Crime & Punishment comes to mind, but he is an intellectual in a bind.  Meursault and Lise are not intellectuals at all. They are part of the uber-mundane class who never tried to learn anything because they were so un-preoccupied with life.

Is it sad, the predicament Meursault is in? Not really. As he says, it’s normal. You kill someone, you go to jail and get your head lobbed off.  So what is the point?  Besides all of the existential mumbo jumbo you read about this novel, what else is happening? Sure, it’s about the potential for the non-existence of God and all that, but somewhere in the novel someone says to Meursault (I think it was the Magistrate) that even if you don’t believe God exists, you still believe in God. For to believe he doesn’t exist is to at least have considered he did.  Therefore he does. 

I’m going to consider this novel as a reminder that life should be appreciated and savored. Meursault and Lise did not do either, and they lost out.

I would also like to mention that it is clear that characters like HBO’s Dexter Morgan, possess the same detachment and feigned emotion as Meursault does in this novel.  Part of Dexter’s training as a child was to feign emotions and to act normal. Meursault does the same thing, and his inner monologue gives him away throughout the novel.

By the end, Meursault has come to look forward to his moment of execution, and he hopes that the crowd of spectators will spew chants of hate at him for what he’s done.  I suppose it is because he lacks such emotion in his real life that he has come to at least appreciate the capacity for emotion in others. Ironically, the final scene is the only instance of emotion for Meursault (when he rages against the Chaplain), and that was an emotional outburst against an insistence that God exists. At least he feels strongly about something.

Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)

What I like about Arthur C. Clarke’s writing is that his narratives are so diverse.  By that, I mean that there will be periods of narrative description or dialogue without much action, then he will hit you with the good stuff:  the stuff that gets your heart pumping and makes YOU want to get the heck out of whatever predicament his characters are in.  Its those moments of heart palpitations that keep me reading his books.  And those are some of the greatest moments of this novel.

So after reading Clarke’s 4-book 2001 saga (see my Cinematophiliac blog posting on it, and other related posts), I couldn’t resist Rendezvous with Rama, if not for the cover’s flaunting of its Hugo and Nebula awards.  Okay, enough of the build up.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!!! (though you’ve had since 1973 to read this…. 😉

It’s ironic that Clarke ends this book mentioning the triple redundancy of the Ramans because of the quadruple-plus redundancy of his books I’ve read so far (2001, 2010, 2061, & 3001), and the other three left in the Rama series. Anyway, that’s an interesting side note.

Rendezvous with Rama ended before I thought it would, but clearly it ended primed for a sequel.  That’s good and I wasn’t disappointed.  I read books much like I watch films:  with little to no understanding of their backgrounds.  I never read film reviews, and I’d certainly never be caught reading a book review.  It’s just not my style.  And, that way I am surprised by what unfolds, like not realizing there were sequels to this book.  It sounds naive, but really it’s much more pleasurable that way.  And, if I knew there were 4 books, I might not have read the first one!  Large volumes intimidate me.  For instance, I took almost an entire summer to read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.  It was like 500 pages!  Great book though.

Sometimes the beginning of Clarke’s story is a bit tedious (i.e. my mention above of the diversity of his narratives), with a lot of background information before you get into the meat of the action.  I realize, after reading his books, that I really like narrative action.  I like feeling connected with the situations the characters are in:  the danger, the clock ticking away.  It’s exhilerating.  I think of the books on narratology I read in grad school. Mainly Mieke Bal’s On Narratology.  I learned a lot from that book.

One of the things that stood out for me in this novel was the insistence by Captain Norton to do the right and ethical thing at ever moment possible.  In fact, there weren’t any situations in which he acted out of fear or impulse.  He always took into consideration the way their actions would affect the Ramans and he went to extremes to make sure that they did not adversely affect the temporary world they were exploring.  I think that’s great.  He was even open minded to one of his crewmen’s (Rodrigo) “religious” explanations and thoughts on Rama, and eventually let him disable the bomb sent by the Hermians on Mercury.

(I just now get why they called them Hermians…obviously Hermes, the Greek god of the forge!  Ahh…Thank God for The Iliad and The Odyssey!!!  They’re the gifts that keep on giving! I love it!  And this is what’s so wonderful about writing on this blog:  it helps so much with comprehension and retention of what I’ve read.  Mission Accomplished!).

Captain Norton reminds me of Captain Jonathan Archer from the Star Trek: Enterprise TV series (2001-2005) because Captain Archer ALWAYS took the most ethical route possible.  That was a great TV series, by the way, and I can’t believe it went off the air. 

At a time when a lot of uncertainty was barreling through the solar system, and a lot of people were afraid of the unknown, Captain Norton kept his head on straight and didn’t react out of fear.  This says a lot about the type of character that Clarke was developing:  someone level-headed who could take in all of the data from a lot of different directions, and make the right decision.  His compassion for the reasonableness of his “religious” crewman (Rodrigo) showed perhaps the most about Norton’s character: that he didn’t jump to conclusions and assume the guy was a whack-job. 

I think we all need to learn some lessons from this:  we might be surrounded by people we think are whack-jobs, but aren’t we being just as fanatic by not being open to their ideas? 

I’m wondering what Rama II has in store for Captain Norton, or future generations’ captains.  I assume it’ll pick up with the NEXT Rama ship (because there will be 3 if we read the triple redundancy correctly) and will help prove why it’s best to NOT bomb things we don’t understand, but rather observe, relate, and let them go on their merry way.  And, who knows how many years it will take for ship #2 to get there….

I finish with this:  In our day and age, can “we” refrain from bombing things and people “we” don’t understand?  Or is there a Captain Norton or a Rodrigo out there brave enough to stand up to the “Hermians,” and their political influence, savagery, and xenophobia, for the good of not only us, but for the good of those we don’t know, can’t see, and certainly don’t understand? 

That’d be nice.