Friday, March 30, 2012

The Eye of the Beholder?

Having dismissed Mrs. Dalloway in a prior post as a book only an English Ph.D. could love (and having been chastised for said dismissal by no less than MalloryHerself), I run a serious risk in the present entry of creating the impression than I am a Literary Barbarian.  But, courage is a Virtue.  Would Odysseus shrink from battle?

As noted before, in my tutorial this Spring, everyone picked a book.  That is why I read Mrs. Dalloway.  I thought I would like it, but…alas.  Another student picked Jane Eyre.  At that suggestion my heart sank.  I had read it before.  And hated it.  So, now I have read it a second time.  I still can’t stand the book.  We talked about it yesterday in the tutorial.  Everyone else in the tutorial loved the book.  We start every tutorial with the simple question “What did you think about the book?”  Such paroxysms of joy have ne’er been heard by mortal ears.  Jane Eyre is a role model, a stunningly great example of womanhood and a daring, brave, courageous, independent woman.  I would have thought that Jane Eyre was the woman being described in the brochures for Mount Holyoke from listening to the students in the tutorial.  And all of them loved her.  Loved her.

So, here I have a problem.  Jane Eyre is a Great Book.  Lots of people have read it for pleasure and profit for many years.  Five bright, intelligent women in my tutorial love the book.  And I hate it.  Something is wrong here.

Jane has got to be the most whiny protagonist in a book ever.  I mentioned this in the tutorial.  Everyone there told me I was wrong, that she isn’t whiny at all.  I opened the book at random, read the first sentence—Jane was whining.  I thought, “Aha!”  I was told she wasn’t whining in that sentence.  I was stunned.  How could nobody else in the room notice that this sentence I choose at random was an example of being whiny?  Something is wrong here.

I then tried on Rochester—the guy is the least lovely romantic love ever.  Oddly, they all agreed. I thought “Aha!” I was then told it didn’t matter that Jane was in love with a Loser.  Jane is still amazing.  How can this be?  Something is wrong here.

And so on.  For two hours, I made the case this book is terrible and for two hours I was told that I was wrong.  Every inane, silly thing about the book simply didn’t matter.  Yes, the plot is contrived.  But Jane is still amazing.  Yes, in the end she ends up playing the servant anyway, But Jane is still amazingly independent.  Yes, she didn’t really have that hard of a life.  But her cousins were really mean to her, and Jane is really amazing.  On and on and on.

I have no idea what to make of this.  Either I am wrong and this book does have merit or the rest of humanity is wrong and it is a really idiotic book, a penny romance novel masquerading as literature.  Just to be clear:  I’d rather read Mrs. Dalloway again than this book. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The City Girl and the Country Girl

There is a subgenre of literature which deserves a name and the Status, ever so exalted, that goes with being Named.  So, let us engage in a bit of nomenclature.  The subgenre is:  Books which are Famous because Professors of English love them, but which nobody else should really bother to read.  At let us hastily admit that there is a Reason Your Humble Narrator is not often asked to engage in the Act of Naming.  (If Janet and I had ever had a male child, I was most eager to name said child “Augustine.”  That name replaced my childhood fantasy of naming my child “Ivanhoe.”  (I kid you not on either name.)  This may be the Reason the Almighty saw fit to Bless Janet and me with Female Offspring.)  But I digress.  What distinguishes this set of books is that they are marked by two Traits.  First, they do have literary merit—that is why English Professors like them. They have lots of style and symbolism and other things we all learned about in high school English classes.  But, second, they are terribly boring books that have no redeeming quality other than the things mentioned in the first trait.

Exhibit A for this class of book:  Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

I am not an English Professor so you can guess what I thought of the book.  Except that you would imagine that I liked it more than I actually did like it.  A terribly boring and pointless book.  And my English professor friends (and yes, this includes my friends who will soon be English Professors) are now gasping in horror at this exhibition of philistine proclivities which heretofore I have kept hidden away.  But, seriously now, let’s be honest, shall we?  This is a really dull book.  Really dull.  And pointless.  The only character who is even remotely interesting is insane and kills himself.  And he is only interesting because he is insane.

The plot?  Surely you jest.  Plot is for mortals, not English Professors.  That is surely one of the reasons they like this book—no plot getting in the way of a good symbolic action.

Undoubtedly there are all sorts of clever things going on in this book.  But, you know what?  I don’t care.  There was nothing in this book which would make me care.  Mrs Dalloway and Septimus Warren are leading some sort of dual life?  Whatever.

The book is trying to break new ground in literature, and it surely does so.  We can mark this book, and indeed Virginia Woolf’s career, as the beginning of the era in which a Novelist with Literary Pretensions scorns the Reader by refusing to offer any reason the Reader should care about the book.  This device only works when you pack the book full of the types of things English Professors like to analyze, and Woolf has manifestly done that. 

In other words, Woolf has created the equivalent of scientific jargon.  Mrs Dalloway is the literary equivalent of the rise of the scientific journal article which outsiders can no longer read.  The timing is even right.  Before the 20th century scientists wrote books which normal people could read.  At the outset of the 20th century, that attempt was abandoned, and scientists wrote papers only for each other.  Mrs Dalloway is a book written for people like Virginia Woolf. 

Should you read it?  If you have or are thinking about getting a Ph.D. in English, then you already have read it.  And you probably enjoyed it.  If not, don’t bother.  Instead, you can listen to this.  I discovered this band (Carolina Chocolate Drops for those who don’t want to click on the link) in a Wall Street Journal  review of their latest album.  It is an excellent album.  I’ve been listening to it over and over on Spotify (great service—if you haven’t signed up, do so.  It’s free.).

Monday, March 26, 2012

Paved with Good Intentions

There is a book I have been meaning to review for a long time.  It’s been sitting in my pile of books waiting to be reviewed for months and months.  Why?  A curious matter, that.

This is a little known book; most of those reading this blog have never heard of the book or the author.  It deserves a wider readership than it has received.  It’s a good book, but not a book for everyone.  It’s not a Great Book, not even close, but it is making a serious argument that would be good for many people to read.  And it does a fine job making the case it wants to make.  It’s clever.  It’s reasonably well-written (nobody is going to confuse the author with Milton, but the prose won’t make anyone wince).

But, since the book is so little known, I’ve wanted to write a review which will convince people who should read it that they should read it.  The book deserves a serious, thoughtful review which will induce serious, thoughtful people to buy a copy and read it.  I don’t have much hope that anyone else will write such a review.  To date, only two people have reviewed it on Amazon and I can’t find a review anywhere else.  As I said, a little known book.

So, with the weight of needing to provide a definitive review weighing heavily upon me, I have never had the stamina to bear that fardel and write the review this book deserves.  Until now.  Why now?  Well, I should be grading, and this was the only excuse I could find to put off grading a little longer.  But, I will note at the outset, that I am very afraid that this review will be insufficient to the task at hand.

The book:
The Wormwood Archive, by T. G. Brown

(See, I told you that you had never heard of it—well except those few of you who have heard of it, but let’s be honest, the only reason you have heard of it is that you know the author.)

Who should read it:  Anyone curious or worried about the state of the Evangelical Church in America.  Seriously—anyone who fits into that category would benefit from reading this book.  It’s short (143 pages) and a quick read.  It is deeply insightful about the nature of the modern evangelical church. 

The idea: The book is a sequel to C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.  That book is one of the pop classics of the modern church.  If you haven’t read it, it’s typical Lewis—clever and interesting as long as you don’t think about it too much.  Brown’s book updates Lewis’ book.  The temptation in the sequel though is no longer the temptation of a man, but rather of a church.

The concept is what makes the book so insightful.  There are many complaints about the state of the modern evangelical church.  Many.  But they tend to fall into the “See how Horrible those Church Growth/Vineyard/Seeker Sensitive types (or those Old-Fashioned/Stuck on tradition types) are” category.  What Brown does well here is imagines that this isn’t a case of Terrible, Horrible people trying to do Terrible, Horrible things.  What if we have a case of good, well-meaning people who end up doing Terrible, Horrible things because they were seduced into thinking they were doing the Right Thing?  What would the temptation of the Whole Church look like?  This book is, in other words, a lot like Whitaker Chamber’s masterpiece, “The Devil.”  (Life, 1948, reprinted in Ghosts on the Roof—if you haven’t read it, you should.  (That advice is for everyone –the Chambers’ essay is worth reading for anyone who enjoys Great Books and Ideas.))

What tempts the modern church?  As the devils in this book indicate, the church is tempted by the desire to become more efficient at what it does.  It wants more customers—because after all a happy customer is a saved soul, right?  It wants a better market image—after all a better image means more customers which means more saved souls, right?  It wants more direction and a better management structure and a more contemporary feel.  It wants to be better.  The Church has to change with the times, don’t you know?  It can't stay stuck in the past.  Read the media, won’t you?  (And there is another problem—why did I just write “read” the media?  Who reads anymore?  Watch the media.  And add some videos and powerpoint slides to that church service while you are at it.)  Christians are so old-fashioned, stuck on outdated principles.  If we want to reach the modern generation, then we need to figure out what the modern generation wants.

And before you know it, the church is no longer recognizable.

This idea that the church has been seduced is surely correct.  The shock of recognition which happens with striking regularity when reading this book is disturbing in a way.  Who hasn’t felt this temptation, the temptation to help improve the church a bit, just a bit, because God, well, he can be so Old Fashioned sometimes, and if only he were around today, then He would probably want this change too, and after all, I’m supposed to be helping God out with the Church things, aren’t I? 

The Road to a Heretical Church is paved with Good Intentions.


Saturday, March 24, 2012


Speaking of violent books, I recently reread Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange for my tutorial.  And O my brothers, Your Humble Narrator would like to tell you it is a real horrorshow book, the kind thou ought to recommend to all thy droogs.   But, it’s not really all that amazing.  It’s good, to be sure, but not nearly as deserving as the praise it receives would suggest.

(As for the movie—just stay away.  Part of the problem this book has is that it spawned a feverish adolescent fantasy in the mind of Stanley Kubrick.  This is a case where the movie not only isn’t as good as the book, but if one sees the movie before reading the book, then it will be very hard to read the book on its own terms.)
Without a doubt, the prose is the only thing which really gives this book any chance of being worthy of attention.  It is a joy to submerse yourself into the jargon and style of the narrator (the original Your Humble Narrator).  From the inspired coinages to the mock Shakespearean style to the elaborate euphemisms for the ultraviolent acts of a depraved youth, uncovering what Alex means is a treat.  (The first version of the book I read had a glossary in the back to translate—that is the sort of innovation which utterly destroys a book like this.  If you are going to read it, just read it.)

The book is an exploration of the nature of Free Will.  Do we choose to do Evil?  How important is it that we preserve the ability to do Evil?  If we could condition Evil people to do Good deeds by making it so that the very thought of an Evil Act induced overwhelming physical revulsion, would that be a good thing to do?  If people are compelled to Act Properly because we had made it impossible for them to Act Improperly, then have we made society better?

The book tries to isolate why people have a hard time with the idea of determinism and free will.  People like the idea that they choose to do good things.  But, they also like the idea that they do not choose to do bad things, that when people do bad things it was somehow determined by  Forces Beyond Our Control.  What this book does is ask which of those two things is more important—is it more important to preserve the idea that we choose to do good or to alter the deterministic aspects of evil so that nobody will ever choose to do evil?  If we end up doing good because doing so is beyond our control, are we better humans?  But, if we want to preserve the idea that what makes us human is the ability to choose to do good deeds, then doesn’t it necessarily follow that we must celebrate the ability to choose evil (we don’t have to celebrate evil, but don't we have to celebrate the possibility of doing evil?)?

The biggest problem with the book is that it cheats in the end.  The original last chapter is an argument that Free Will triumphs, but since Alex chooses to Be Good in the end for no apparent reason, the book ends up reading like some fairy tale of evil youths maturing and becoming good members of society.  Dropping the last chapter (as was done in the original American publication) isn’t an improvement—then we end with an evil character whose evil is somehow stamped on his soul with no possibility of choice—which would also simply be a cheat.  In the end, it’s not clear that this book is really arguing anything.  Nice prose in the service of a Big Question but providing No Answer, not even a bad answer, just no answer at all. 

So, read it for the prose, which is a real joy.  But, don’t spend too long imagining it is a deep book.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

F. R. Leavis (if I recall correctly) noted about Lady Chatterley’s Lover that is was a failure as a novel, but it did have a serious moral intent.  Since the novel did stand trial for obscenity (ah, how times have changed), this sort of critical discrimination is important.   The novel is pretty bad, the point being made (industrialization is soul destroying) has been done better elsewhere, and the prurient parts are tedious, but even still, to simply call the book pornography is really missing the point.  Moreover, to simply label it pornographic is rather ironic, since the point being made in the novel is that the rise of the Industrial Age has destroyed our ability to enjoy erotic attachments.

Enter The Hunger Games.

I bought the trilogy for Clara as a Christmas gift.  We both read it shortly thereafter, and  we both enjoyed the series.  The quick review:  nice idea, not well written.  The pitch is a mess: one part political thriller, one part action movie, one part romantic love triangle.  Clara clearly liked the second part the best, hated the third part, and did not understand the first part.  (Indeed, about halfway through the second book she was expressing sympathy for the Evil Emperor, which either means my daughter is an incipient totalitarian or does not understand political subplots (I think it is the latter, but I am a bit worried that this is a case of my desire altering my perception of reality).)

As a trilogy, it is also very uneven.  The first book is far and away the best.  It’s a lot like Card’s Ender’s Game in this respect.  The cleverness is all in the construction of this giant game, which is more than it appears to be.  But, once the scene pulls back and we start seeing more of the world beyond the Game, the storyline loses momentum, at times devolving into outright tedium.  (The comparison to Card isn’t entirely fair—the second and third books in The Hunger Games are good enough to merit reading, while the rest of Card’s cycle is just plain awful.)

So, for months now, I have been merely thought of these books as pleasant diversion over Christmas Break.  Then comes the movie.  The images of little fangirls screeching in anticipation is funny—obviously the love triangle works better on pre-adolescents than on their elders.  (Think Twilight.)  There was an amusing Wall Street Journal article about how the movie studio was trying to make sure adolescent boys would also go see the movie—they were worried no self-respecting 16 year old boy would want to see a movie in a theater packed with swooning 13 year old girls.  So, the trailers play up the images of people doing exciting things like shooting arrows.  Anyway, an amusing cultural phenomenon.  Or so I thought.

Then about a week or so ago, Janet started asking me about whether this book was really appropriate for children.  A book about a game in which children must kill each other on live TV for the enjoyment of the population at large did not strike Janet (or those to whom she had been talking ) as Age-Appropriate.  (I’m not sure what age would constitute the threshold for that premise, but that’s another matter.)   The first time she asked about it, I just shrugged it off.  But, when she asked a few more times, I figured I should really write up a review, explaining why the trilogy is not inherently immoral.  (Not that Janet will ever read the review, mind.  She doesn’t read this here blog.  On principle.)

The Hunger Games is like Lady Chatterley’s Lover (not a review the publisher is likely to put on the book jacket, by the way).  It is making a very serious moral argument in a flawed vehicle and the critics are focusing on the vehicle, missing the moral argument, and indeed, in an ironic twist, the critics are acting exactly the way that the Evil masterminds in the book want the ignorant population in the book to act.

The moral argument:  the constant spectacle of violence in the modern age is destroying our souls.  As we become increasingly desensitized to violence, the stakes need to be constantly raised.  (Have you watched TV recently?)  Not only have we become more accustomed to violence, we have developed a taste for watching violence for enjoyment.  (TV, anyone?)  The Hunger Games imagines the future:  a giant reality TV show with violence as the theme.  Survivor to Big Brother to Jersey Shore to the Hunger Games.  On top of that, the Evil Government has designed the Game so that everyone will have a rooting interest—in a nation divided into districts, contestants are chosen randomly from each district, so that everyone has a stake in hoping a contestant from their district, someone they may know, will win.  There is even an audience participation portion of the program, in which your district, provided it can raise enough money, can send aid to contestants during the Game.  Moreover, the Games are not some fair fight on a neutral battlefield, but are carefully crafted so that the drama will be enhanced.  One contestant is a great archer—OK, there will be a bow and arrows waiting to be found.  But wait, the contestant who is archer is now shooting people from afar—OK, we’ll give armor to the other contestants.  The rules keep changing as the game progresses, forcing new strategies at each stage. To win, one must not only be skilled, but resourceful and clever and able to adapt quickly.  One also must be ruthless.  The ultimate sporting event.

Ah, but wait.  Children are dying in this game.  Actually, children are being murdered by other children in this game.  Isn’t that horrifying?  Uh, yeah.  That’s the point.  The Evil government in the book wants you simultaneously to get absorbed in the Game and to think it is all a horrifying, terrible, monstrous game.   If you focus your attention on how terrible it is that these kids are dying and murdering each other, maybe you won’t notice that life outside the Games, the life everyone is leading on a day-to-day basis, is really shockingly brutal and horrifying.  In the world of the books, the government is a nasty totalitarian empire.  The population is being starved into submission by a ruthless police state.  And yet, when people complain about the life they lead in the book, and when people out here in our world complain about how violent the books are, it is the Games they mention, not the brutality of living in a totalitarian police state.  By diverting your attention away from the political, your anger has been diverted into a rather safe channel.

The books are unstinting in their depiction of the brutality of this society, and yet, we still just notice the Games.  The protagonist, Katniss, is a very unlikable character.  Clara hated her—in part Clara was hoping she would die in the Games so that the books could be about a character she liked.  (I suspect in the movie Katniss will be dashing and charming.)  The violence of the Games destroys the lives of everyone who participates, even the winners.  By the end of this trilogy, nobody is happy.  Even though the good guys win, nobody is happy. (Another thing that will undoubtedly be changed when the movie trilogy is finished.)  It is a field littered with lives which have been destroyed by the violence. 

But, can a book with a central plot line in which children kill one another be morally acceptable reading for children (or adults)?  Ask William Golding, or any of the myriad of teachers and parents who have assigned this book.  The Hunger Games is in another sense a modern incarnation of Lord of the Flies.  I have never heard of someone objecting that Jack's hunting of Ralph or the deaths of Piggy and Simon make the book morally unsuitable.  Everyone seems to acknowledge that the book's moral purpose is something other than the mere depiction of the brutal murder of Simon.
A serious moral argument, then.  A critique of the modern world.  So, why does anyone object?  For exactly the same reason that people objected to Lawrence’s book.  Some people read Lawrence for a cheap erotic thrill (indeed, one of my professors in grad school once announced he was reading the book for exactly that reason).  Some people read The Hunger Games purely for the violence.  Some people also read the trilogy for the love story.  Some people read it because everyone else is reading it.  Some people don’t read it at all.  Yet, in the end, why people read the book does not change the underlying moral seriousness of the trilogy.  
The Hunger Games a deeply flawed trilogy.  But, in more capable hands, it could have been extremely good.  And that is something you can’t say about most books written these days.