Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

The Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, captivated by mescal and his lust for self destruction, and quite assured that his own fall is synonymous with the rest of the planet’s, meanders throughout Southern Mexico for four hundred pages of drunken fog and misfortune.

This book is frustrating because large swathes of it are boring or borderline unintelligible. Especially those following Yvonne, Geoff’s ex-wife, who continuously returns to her alcoholic ex-husband, who treats her poorly, hoping it will be different this time. Other portions are vivid in their harrowing portrayal of the Consul’s personal madness. There’s rambling streams of consciousness where Geoff argues with himself or perhaps someone else or relives an old memory, only to reveal he was entirely silent or the recollection never happened. An instant or an hour may have passed.

My favorite part of the novel: A lengthy chapter following the Consul’s half brother, Hugh, as he enlists as a sailor simply to prove his privileged family wrong and that he is both a person of merit and grit. Of course, pretending to be a working man doesn’t help, other than in contracting dysentery, and Hugh treats us to a succession of brilliant ideas he’s sure will lead to enlightenment/purpose/a feeling of being learned and famed, but also good. In all cases, he discovers his idea to be faulty, empty. Embarrassment precedes the next attempt at guilt-free purpose. It is a remarkably timeless account.

Reading that Hugh chapter, I thought the novel had turned a corner into greatness. Then my eyes glazed over a few pages into the next chapter.

Taken all together, I can’t say I enjoyed it, yet I am also certain it will remain with me. The feel of it. The jungle, the Consul. Lowry. Imagined in such clarity. Sometimes. 

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Review roundup

Life has been busy, no time to blog. But always time to read. Here’s a quick roundup of what I’ve read since the last update:

20893314A Brief History of Seven Killings: Violence and conspiracy in 1970s Jamaica as several characters encircle the little known assassination attempt of Bob Marley. The lengthy, smart dialogue matched up with the stream of consciousness point of view, coupled with the long and shifting list of characters gives you the feeling that The Wire, Quentin Tarantino and William Faulkner were placed in a blender.

It’s good, but too long. Some characters bleed into eachother, some chapters seem completely unnecessary.

 

 

7950980Tropic of Cancer: Life is a pretty much a shifting, slimy, disgusting morass. A sewer. Except when it’s not. Henry Miller’s amoral disillusionment with life, while he wanders around Paris, broke, is interesting but has largely lost the shocking relevance of its initial publication.

Shameful that the US censored this for a good thirty years in any case.

 

 

6617037Debt: The First 5,000 Years: When I was a kid, elementary school teachers
taught us that blood in your veins is
blue, and blood in your arteries is red. Your blue blood only turns red when you’re wounded because of its reaction to oxygen. When I learned much later that this was complete bullshit, I was outraged and astounded. Why teach kids a pointless lie??

Why is this relevant? Well, because the beginning of Debt outlines that the myth of barter — that one dude is trading a bundle of fish for another dude’s socks — that is taught to every child in America is also false! And I’m mad about that too!

Credit came first, then coinage. And the credit came back. And then coinage. And now, as of Richard Nixon delinking the dollar from the gold standard in the 70s, we’re embarking on yet another credit cycle.

 

White Like Me by Tim WiseWhite Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son: A sort of racism 101, told by a white guy occasionally revealing amusing or insightful anecdotes.

His most important point w/r/t white people talking to white people about race is the erasure of white resistance in history. For example, hundreds of thousands of southern whites deserted or protested rather than fight in the civil war. By silencing them, Wise points out that you deny whites the historic knowledge that you have a choice.

 

Chekhov: seven short novels

chekhovI had never read any Chekhov. This was grave misstep, a gap in my western canon. I’ve read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky but was missing the Russian who has a smoking literary gun named after him. He’s supposed to be the master of the short story. He’s so ubiquitous, this book doesn’t even have a title or an author but just says CHEKHOV on the front. How do I even index this? Chekhov by Chekhov?

Anyway. I’ve read Chekhov now. I probably should have read his better known short stories, but I started with novellas. And let me tell you, I now know just how miserable it is to be a 19th century Russian peasant. I can feel the cockroaches crawling in my sleep, taste the stale black bread and porridge.

 

The Duel

The Duel is my favorite novella in this collection. It’s the first story and unlike all the others, it’s not about the class divide of declining Tsarist Russia nor the impact of the Industrial Revolution on village life.

A bunch of Russian immigrants — the deacon, the zoologist, the government official and his wife, and other archetypes — live their lazy lives in a hazy desert outpost in the Caucasus. It’s so hot outside, you can’t do much more than swim in the warm sea or sit in the shade. Laevsky, the official, came out here to start a new life with his married lover, but has had enough. The plot revolves around him trying to borrow enough money to skip town, while lying to himself and everyone else that he’ll pay for his woman to come along later.

Much of the story is these characters having conversations while completely misunderstanding each other. The blurb on this book declares Chekhov’s interest in mutual unintelligibility. This is an excellent term that encapsulates the human problem of The Duel. None of the characters are bad people, though some are quite weak, they’re just locked into their own narrow vision of the world and cannot see themselves in anyone else’s shoes. Sound familiar? This story feels it. You could meet these people in your modern day to day.

 

Ward No. 6, A Woman’s Kingdom, Three Years

I’m lumping these three together because they’re similar in theme and also the least interesting to me. Ward No. 6 is about a doctor at a mental asylum, A Woman’s Kingdom is about an unhappy woman who inherits a booming factory business. They’re both about the divide between the people on the inside (wealth, class, etc) and the people on the outside (the poor, the workers, the mentally ill) and the various philosophies and personalities involved. I found them sort of interesting but mostly tedious.

Three Years, while still somewhat tedious, earns its tedium. Because it’s a story about tedium. A man marries a woman who does not love him. They move to Moscow. Both of them are miserable. There’s not much to look forward to when even romantic love has failed. They try to convince themselves love doesn’t matter but little else stimulates them. Yeah. Even the version I know was objectively good I found difficult to actually like. 

 

My Life

This one is great. A twenty something good-for-nothing from a formerly aristocratic family decides to become a working man and is promptly disowned by his father. As the title says, this is the first person story of his life. It’s meandering and melancholy. Life can be unfulfilling and unhappy no matter how hard you try to attach principles and meaning to it. But unlike the other stories, there are moments of joy, however fleeting. It’s almost like Chekhov arguing with himself here. The pointless tedium of life that he fears and portrays in other stories is present here but is shown as possible to combat. Maybe. 

 

Peasants and The Ravine

Peasants is an excellent depiction of living life poor in a village in the late 19th century. It was terrible. You cannot read this story without feeling honestly glad you live in the modern day and have at least some means that these poor sods didn’t.  It also has the best quotes:

The lamp went out. And the darkness, the two little windows, sharply lit by the moon, the silence, and the creak of the cradle for some reason called to mind only that life had already slipped by, that you can’t turn it back . . . You doze, lose consciousness, then suddenly someone touches your shoulder, breathes on your cheek– and there’s no sleep. Your body seems numbed as if circulation had stopped, and all the thoughts of death creep into your head; you turn on the other side– death already forgotten, but through your head drift the old, tiresome, tedious thoughts about want, about food, about flour becoming dearer, and shortly thereafter, you remember again that life has already slipped by, that you can’t turn it back…

The Ravine is more of the same but not as effective as Peasants, though it does include the most shocking and horrifying scene in the whole collection.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don_Quixote

There are two Don Quixote’s.

There is the wise man, dispensing philosophy and wisdom to anyone who will listen; astounding people with his insight when they witness the second Don Quixote, a madman absolutely certain he is a knight errant, pursued by evil enchanters and engaging in combat with giants and beasts.

There’s literally two different Don Quixote’s. The books, I mean. Not just in the two parts, written 10 years apart after Cervantes finally succumbed to fan demand and wrote a sequel, but an actual second one written by a different man — Avellaneda — and ridiculed by Cervantes in part 2 of the official text. Before the modern novel was even truly established, Cervantes was writing postmodern: self-referential work, breaking the fourth wall, a string of narrators deeper than House of Leaves.

And of course, we have the character as he exists in the text, jousting windmills and pining for non-existent maidens and traipsing all over Spain. But also the archetype, the towering figure that spans four hundred years of literary culture. Without reading the novel, you know him, a gaunt figure atop a skinny nag, his plump squire not far behind. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are singular figures, even reading this book in the 21st century when they’ve been parodied and copied and rehashed so many times it’s difficult to even envision a time before them.

I thought the first part of Don Quixote was merely pretty good. The pacing was bizarre and it frequently split off entirely from the titular hero for random characters to tell side-stories about other random characters. Iconic scenes like the windmill-mishap just weren’t quite as striking as I hoped. It was humorous though. After I finished it, I put it on my shelf and forgot about it for several years. Disappointed with what I had been reading recently, and not really knowing what to take on next, I found it on my bookshelf and started part 2 on a whim.

Unlike part 1, the story focused entirely on Don Quixote and Sancho; Cervantes had grown as a writer and had a finer touch on what he wanted those characters to be, likely in part due to the imposter text written by Avellaneda that had turned up in the interim. The latter writer insisted Sancho was a glutton and Cervantes couldn’t stand it! There’s multiple scenes where Sancho explains he’s a hungry man, but not a gluttonous one. The story continues to have a very strange pacing — the characters just sort of bound from one adventure to another without much continuity or focus, they have muddled goals and then their quest just sort of ends, abruptly. But the charm is unmistakable and I found myself deeply sad when Don Quixote comes to his senses, proclaims his madness, and finally croaks.

Dubliners by James Joyce

dublinersThe Dublin I visited was a cacophonous jungle of tourism, seemingly as many visitors as locals. The Guinness factory was beer-disney world. A heat wave passed through, so it was humid and sticky. Trinity College, Grafton Street, St. Stevens Green were such a crush of people, it was hard to discern the landscape. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun (though not nearly as much fun as in the western portions of the country), but it was nearly a total flip of James Joyce’s Ireland.

Indeed, Dubliners is a sparse, wet, cold Dublin. Full of sad people in sad vocations in unfulfilling marriages. Alcoholism is like a plague, the pledge a desperate but typically hopeless cure. All of the characters share some great disappointment in their lives — family, passion, work, travel. Everyone is trying to get away and no one appears to be visiting. As a reader, you become suspicious when anyone appears happy because experience has taught you it must be a facade or hope will inevitably be dashed.

I liked it. Mostly. There’s a few duds but standouts like:

The Dead: The longest story and Joyce’s most well known. A joyous celebration followed by dismal ennui.

Araby: A teen boy tries to get his father to drive him to the bazaar to buy a gift for a girl; a perfect picture of adolescent disappointment.

A Mother: A dedicated & shrewd mother maneuvers her daughter into a stage performance; one of those stories that takes a potentially boring and low-stress situation and makes it tense and meaningful.

Yet, my vision of Joyce, not having read any before is influenced by Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, notoriously difficult and esoteric reads. I was actually somewhat disappointed that Dubliners is so straightforward. Joyce uses short, clear sentences that describe the characters and action in precise fashion. The subtext is generally very clear — low hanging metaphorical fruit ala The Great Gatsby.

There’s an ‘Irish’ question that persists today. English influence versus Irish tradition, maintaining the old ways and the old language and discarding anglo-imitation slash adoration. Characters have conflicts like how swell and sophisticated they feel traveling to Paris or London vs. the disdain they receive for never visiting parts of their own country or being able to speak the language. It’s a continuing topic in Irish discourse and there’s been success on the traditional front — more people can speak Irish Gaelic than they could 10-15 years ago.

Dubliners influence on modern writers is clear. Thomas Pynchon is obvious, and the protagonists of A Painful Case or Counterparts could easily be some of the men in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Yet unlike either of those writers, Joyce feels almost entirely free from irony or humorous cynicism; Dubliners is more like an earnest depiction of a very Irish problem. One that I didn’t see on the streets of Dublin but absolutely absorbed through the media (radio especially), temperament, black humor, and people from other parts of the country.

The Metamorphosis and Other Stories

metamorpmosisA MAN TURNS INTO A BUG. Franz Kafka is known for this. And one hundred years later, his work remains inimitable. Bizarre, grotesque, monotonous, true. Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cockroach and this is remarkable to everyone but his own self, because as the overworked and under-appreciated breadwinner of his family, he already lives like one. His initial trials involve trying to get out of bed (he’s stuck on his back carapace and hasn’t managed to control his multitude of tiny fluttering legs yet) and trying to open doors. What follows, as his family begins to ostracize him, is a black humor-laced* depiction of how some families treat the terminally ill among them.

The stories maintain a striking relevance. The Penal Colony is a story about the failed maintenance of the once great ‘apparatus’, an impossible steampunk device that writes a victim’s crimes in their own skin until they run out of blood and it (the apparatus) tosses them into a bottomless desert pit. It is a political tale of capital punishment and changing opinions tied to changing regimes. It could have been written today, which is sort of depressing in its resonance.

There’s fragments and meditations. Short recursive pieces where characters sunk in pathos consider and reconsider their life and emotions mark Kafka as a very direct antecedent to David Foster Wallace’s short fiction. There’s dark fairy tales and sardonic observations of social interaction and weird, coincidence laden tales of ship crews where no one acts or responds as they should. Why does that kid love the awkward crewman (‘the stoker’) like a father after knowing him for five minutes, why??

But yes, more Kafka. I intend read his entire oeuvre, which isn’t terribly long, but I’d do the same if it were much longer.

*I never realized the horror-trope of a man covering his mouth with his hands and slowly backpedaling away had its roots in Kafka. I do now, thanks to Gregor’s jerk boss coming to the Samsa house to lecture him on the requirements of showing up to work before he opens the door and sees roach-Gregor and reacts accordingly.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

orlando(Yes, my copy has this hideous cover)

The Great Modernists. I can appreciate them. I can comprehend and marvel at their skill. But like a peerless painting hung in a museum, I do not want to spend hours gazing (reading) upon them. I picked Orlando specifically because it contains many of my favorite hooks to a great novel — a sweeping historical narrative, a skilled writer of prose, humor, and a touch of the fantastic (Orlando is near four hundred years old by the end of the novel and inexplicably swaps genders halfway through).

Yet I went from moderately interested — the beginning chapters detailing a royal carnival upon the frozen-over Thames, before the ice catastrophically splits — to sort of ambivalent with the direction the book was taking, to utterly bored, to actually skimming the final few pages which I never do. The eponymous god-prince/cess wanders throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and barely learns anything. Nothing is ever explained and there’s no tension or plot, which I don’t necessarily need in a novel, but I do need something. The fantastical elements are never contextualized nor explained. The humor is excellent but rare, and while Virginia Woolf is a great writer, she’s not the type that resonates with me so acutely that I can read anything she writes and simply be enraptured by the sentence-by-sentence level prose itself.

The politics are dated. Orlando suddenly changing from man to woman changes very little (and that’s the point!). In fact, her clothes change her more. In an era when women are not prohibited from wearing pants, this is not particularly radical. This is not some sort of sexism is over! tirade — but the book was written in 1928, there’s not much new or profound on the political front. It is actually sort of infuriating how little Orlando actually acknowledges any sort of change. This is most pronounced when she mysteriously has a son towards the end of the novel. She’s never pregnant, and at least in the visible narrative, hasn’t been anywhere near any suitable men the entire time.

The whimsy just did not hold it together for me, I guess.