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.

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.