Only 10 years after the publication of this book Europe had been nearly completely destroyed, the Soviet Union controlled most of the east, America controlled the rest, the atom had been split, and the technology needed to take men to the moon only needed perfecting. Computers, radar, jet engines, women in the workplace, a Jewish state inside Palestine, the neutering of any meaningful monarchies in England and Japan ... a total change in civilization. All within about 10 years.
There's a scene near the end of this book that stood out for me more than almost any other and that is when they first hear and them come upon those albino penguins. The image is at first somewhat comical, then a little sad, too. The scene stood out for me because those penguins seemed to make for a wonderful metaphor for our own existence - blind, pale, helpless, easily frightened chattel to be trampled over by far, far greater powers. The birds were totally indifferent to their surroundings, utterly incapable of comprehending their fate or that anything of any greater importance was going on around them, aside from the inconvenience of being disturbed.
I felt as if Lovecraft had somehow felt the pulse of the times and was able to create a vision of what we as a species were about to do to ourselves during the late 1930's and into the 1940's. That dread that is on every page of the book is palpable and captures what some, but not nearly enough people, must have felt when visiting Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia before war broke out: a terrible helpless feeling of unease all around that nobody could escape from and a feeling that tragedy was about to happen again.
And the book's warning to all future adventures to leave well enough alone and to not explore to deep into regions that are best left unexplored, though a theme that crops up in science fiction very often, is more than just a trope here. Lovecraft seems to be intuiting the dangers of man meddling with things he can't control by foreshadowing nuclear war with those terrible visions beyond the mountains. Lovecraft is saying that the old way of life will forever change if man proceeds on its current course, that poking our noses where they don't belong will, though not unleash the darkest horrors of the ancient universe, somehow corrupt us from within.
Lovecraft is saying that science and reason can only take us so far before we get lost in a labyrinth of confusion, causing us to splinter as a society and species, forcing us from one extreme to the other, slowly eroding our own sense of self and art and culture, that all the greatest learning will eventually lead to an even greater forgetting; a forgetting of ourselves. Lovecraft seems quite content to stay put, to not pass that terrible boundary we charged right over in the 10 years after this book was written.
It's very pessimistic in its conclusion, however, I can't say I blame him either; he knew which way the wind was blowing. And I should be careful in reading too much into this book because after all he was trying to just write a damn entertaining page turner with some first-rate horror that Hollywood is still trying to copy to this day (either great films like Carpenter's 'The Thing' and Darabount's 'The Mist', or failures such as Ridley Scott's beautiful but deeply flawed 'Prometheus'). Yet the best stories, the ones that resonate with each generation are more than just fun reads, there does have to be something more to the pie than just a pretty pie crust.
Lovecraft writes very simply, clearly, and is a master at teasing out splinters of information at just the right time as to build the for boding. And even when there is really not much actually happening, he still manages to fascinate, such as the telling of the strangeness of the Old Ones and their life on early, ancient Earth. He doesn't bog us down with needless emotional scenes, rather, he uses Danforth as the emotional sounding-board to juxtapose with Dyer's cool, clinical, detachment. The rest is all supreme imagination and, honestly, horror so well written that I was genuinely scared and kept looking over my shoulder. It's really quite uncanny.
But there is much more here than a writer's wonderful imagination creating a mythos just for fun, Lovecraft has tapped into a vein that still resonates because he not only knows how to write a great story, but also because he knows what frightens us and because he intuited so much of what was just about to happen to the world in the coming years. Lovecraft is sort of a mile marker, a sign post, a line in the sand on which one side is all that came before and on the other is all that he warned humanity not to cross over less it destroy itself.
And so here were are looking back at a base camp we can never return to; only madness awaits us ahead.
The most interesting, and shocking fact about history is just how young so many of the military commanders and leaders actually were down through time. One of the most famous, Alexander III of Macedon, was barely into his 20's when he began conquering the known world. Wars today are still fought by people the same age as Alexander (some even younger), and there will always be glory in war for a young man wanting to make a name for himself.
Kim begins with a gun, a giant canon representing the strength, struggle, and oppression of India and the people who wanted control of the subcontinent. The book ends with a choice. In between we get the education of young Kim by his elders who see great promise in this talented, smart, cunning, and devious boy. Some wish to use him for the Great Game, that struggle for control over India (and now Pakistan), others wish to see him stay true to his native people (though little do they know he's actually white - a 'Sahib'), and one man, Teshoo Lama, wishes to set him on the path of 'the way', the true path of eternal salvation and freedom from sin.
And this struggle for Kim's soul - both figuratively and literally - makes up the heart of the book, and not so much for the character's sake, bot for our own. Kipling is forcing us to decide which way we would choose to go (war, peace, or indifference) by letting us inhabit a main character who makes us feel smarter than we probably are in real life, more cunning than we are even on our best of days, braver, stronger, and more experienced than we would admit to being and then leaving the final decision open to our own interpretation as a test to see what we would do with Kim's talents and teachers influence.
The novel does seem to aim for an audience of boys aged somewhere between 10 and 16 and Kipling does seem to be square in the camp of hoping young men will grow up to choose the way of peace, like the Lama, yet he doesn't beat you over the head with his morality, either. The life of the Great Game is very exciting, could lead to great renown, money, women, respect: all the things us boys dream of when we're young (and pretty much till the day we die old men, too). And even the simple life of just living your life out with basic comfort, a family, your head down and nose clean (the typical life most of us wind up choosing) is here seen as exotic, profitable, and, at the least, interesting.
In fact considering how much of the novel is focused on the relationship between Kim and the Lama and how relatively little is devoted to a more exciting life, goes to show just how difficult it is to steer people away from war, from vain glory, from 'illusion' as the Lama would say. Just one encounter with a spy, with a Russian with a gun, with a mysterious gem trader can nearly undo years of fellowship with a peaceful Lama whose earthly reward is begging and heavenly reward is uncertain.
And so looking deeper into these decisions it seems much clearer how in that particular part of the world even today it's not so difficult to see why young men chose to join up with groups that offer far more attractive and comfortable rewards here on Earth instead of following the ways of a prophet. Life in Pakistan and the surrounding area is harsh, dangerous, other cultures and foreigners look down on them as dirty and stupid, there are no real opportunities, and so it's not hard to understand why on the one hand even a powerful religion such as Islam can teach peace and on the other young men will kill in the name of it.
So in many ways that I doubt Kipling would have ever imagined, Kim is a very relevant novel today that teaches us quite a bit about ourselves as well as the people of an 'exotic' land in the middle east and subcontinent. Kipling shows us the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil, and though he aims for a younger audience, the book is filled with a wisdom that is well beyond the age of the intended reader.
I am a little uncomfortable with some of the generalizations Kipling paints with concerning nearly all the ethnicity. Mahbub Ali, a Muslim, is dangerously close to the stereotypical dangerous and shady Afghan Muslim, Hurree is a buffoon even when he's tough as nails and brilliant, Creighton is far too fatherly and pretty much stands for all of British colonialism, the two chaplains (a Catholic and a Protestant) are comic relief, and even the Lama seems very one-dimensional and straight out of a bad Hollywood interpretation of the wise, Tibetan monk.
Yet there is also real friendship between Kim and the Lama that transcends the page and in moments of crisis for the two of them genuinely had me worried for the outcome and that strength of the friendship helps sell the idea of the way of peace in the face of so many more tempting options. And it's that friendship on the page, the real art of the novel that made me really love the book despite its flaws.
" ...there are as many shipwrecks as there are men ..."
Imagine, for a moment, that it was Brown's sunken schooner which makes its way back to the beginning of the novel and becomes the wreckage that caves in the Patna's bulkhead ("as though the ship had steamed across a narrow belt of vibrating water and of humming air"), thus setting the events in motion all over again. This novel would then be a wholly contained circle of doomed fate and circumstance destined to play out the same way over and over, time after time. Perhaps this is why Conrad chose to not only describe Jim as "inscrutable" but also to tell the story through Marlow - a story within a story so that Jim, in essence, more easily becomes us ("one of us" and, truly, "any of us") and Marlow becomes a sort of God who dispassionately watches us folly.
The nested storytelling, the subtle wordplay, the idea that "three hundred miles beyond the end of telegraph cables and mail-boat lines, the haggard utilitarian lies of our civilization wither and die, to be replaced by pure exercises of imagination" creates an unreality that speaks to a truth of our own being better than if we were given an exact replica of Jim. Conrad gives us something infinitely better than an anatomically perfect recreation of a man who, for all the reasons and complexities that make a person a person, fails in his honor and shipwrecks his future - we get "the exact description of the form of a cloud" - a cloud in which we each see something different but is just simply a cloud - just simply us.
Ultimately, for me, the novel was about chances, specifically the chances that are missed in life; the missed chances we always remember and can never let go of and forgive ourselves for. And Jim could have easily asked for forgiveness, too - his father, a parson, seemed a very thin analogy with God himself, a God who will forgive if only you truly believe in him, but Jim couldn't even forgive himself for the missed chance and for how he ruined his life.
And I kept wondering about his father. Jim kept that letter all those years so you knew it pained him to turn his back on his family and even though he 'knew' he could never go back, he also knew that he didn't actually know that - he still held onto a sliver of hope, even if it was only a hopelessly romantic and boyishly nostalgic one.
I wonder if what Conrad was also trying to say is that man is always doomed? There really are no heroes in the novel, in fact the best man we come across, the most successful man, Captain Brierly, just up and decides one day to jump off his ship and drown himself. Did Brierly see his fate clearly to know that he too was doomed, like Jim? Or did he know that if push came to shove he would be just as cowardly as Jim and he couldn't face it, not like Jim could? And how come the biggest bastard in the novel, Captain Brown, is most able to act 'heroically'? Is Conrad trying to say that heroism is born only from selfishness? From wanting to fill one's belly?
While I don't know what Conrad actually thought, it seems clear to me that he felt it important to write an entire novel that makes you question the definition of morality, of honor, and of character. That's why Conrad created the 'character' of Jim because he could be any of us, he could be all of us, he represents every one of our individual failures and missed chances and misunderstandings. Jim is like the inner doll of a Russian nesting doll and each character in the novel is one doll larger until we get to the outer doll, us.
However, I'm still unsure of what I think the novel was all about. Conrad plays such a literary master game with us that by the end I feel like my head is spinning. The language is beautiful but nonspecific (as Conrad always writes), and the "point" is unclear and open to really any interpretation - I have more questions than answers, but I love that he got me thinking about so many ideas.
And this has been the most difficult review of a novel I've ever had to write because it would be like trying to recreate one of Steins perfect butterflies from far away based off of just the verbal description given to us through multiple sources handed out from the jungle 300 miles in and pieced together over a life time. I could spend my life getting caught up in this beautiful novel, constantly going around and around, like Jim, or like fate, or like all of mankind.
For a long time I've been hoping to find a good piece of scholarship dealing with the peoples of the ice age, specifically the people who painted the caves in France and modern-day Europe. I know that there isn't all that much to go on, however, I assumed there would be at least a few people in this field of archaeology, anthropology, and sociology who could at least offer some solid, historical, factual knowledge on what these people were like, how they lived and survived, what they might have possibly believed.
Sadly, I never really found a work of non-fiction that I felt was suitable - either because the time period was too recent (Mesopotamia and the fertile crescent peoples) or the books were new-age, wack-a-doo nonsense with pictures of burning crystals superimposed over photographs of cave paintings.
About ten years ago I picked up a book called Red Mars because someone recommended it to me and I wasn't even 50 pages into it before I went back to the bookstore to buy the sequels Green Mars and Blue Mars. In those books Kim Stanley Robinson embarked on a grand thought experiment concerning colonizing the red planet. His book wasn't filled with any aliens (though the people living on Mars grew quite distant from the people left on poor Earth), and neither was his book filled with any unnecessary action or typically 'science fiction' plot points. The books were clearly written in his simple yet intelligent voice and they dealt simply with people and how they interacted with each other. In fact at times you almost forgot they were even on Mars.
And that was the real key: Robinson is able to draw you into his worlds slowly, carefully, and hardly without you even noticing.
This book is another grand thought experiment, but instead of an alien planet he writes about our own alien planet tens of thousands of years ago when we even lives side by side with our evolutionary ancestors, the Neanderthals. But the book is never strange, it's always about people, a boy named Loon being trained to be a Shaman, and most importantly it's about survival. This is a world where people have to stick together to stay alive but could very well take place even today in the wilds of Siberia, or remotest Canada, or Patagonia because aside from their perspective on how the universe works, they are no different than we are. They love, they fight, they create art, and they die.
In a way Robinson takes away a lot of the romantic mystery of what living during the ice age would be because it really isn't that different from how many people live today. People are people all through history and just because they lived a long time ago does not mean they are some alien species from Mars.
Above all, however, this book is a supreme work of imagination (and I'm sure research, too based on the many people he acknowledges at the end). We can never know what our ancestors were thinking when they crawled into caves and painted on the walls, but we do know that they were good at it and that when people are good at something they probably enjoy doing it, too.
Robinson follows very simple A to B logic in making the story very believable - if you need to tell time, how do you do it without a clock? Or how do you know what ice to step on or avoid? Or how do you treat a wound? Robinson is always turning these simple questions into plot points to advance the story and I get the feeling he had fun trying to think the story through and how the characters would act and survive given such limited tools and knowledge.
As for historical accuracy, well, I can't say how accurate the book is, and I doubt anyone really could, but it feels authentic and that's good enough. The story is very simple, there is no epic battle or major intrigue, and there is really only one major change of location for added drama, but mostly it's about being immersed in a world very different from our own but also very similar to our own - like looking into the eyes of a Neanderthal and seeing a glimpse of ourselves or looking at the beautiful cave paintings and seeing the vast and recognizable reservoir of human talent and ability over the millennia.
This is a wonderful book that while not earth shattering in scope, is quite an achievement in imagination.
"But after the war we'll be free to do as we please,"
"We'll never forget [it]."
The very beginning of the novel, on the transport ship out of NYC, Dos Passos introduces a symmetrical repetition on images and words. At first it seems as if he is doing it to capture the rolling, lolling motion of the ship over the waves, but later, when the story is much broader in scope than just a mere ocean, this continual repetition and reworking of the same images captures that sameness of civilization and all its problems and terrors that repeat generation after generation.
At one point Martin looks out over the men and thinks about how all the previous generations of mankind had been struggling for this terrible moment, as if we knew it was going to happen all along. Fate and time play an important role in the story and Dos Passos writes beautifully to connect the themes of timelessness and the passage of time. In one passage as Martin recites Blake's poem, Ah Sunflower, to see how far he can get before another shell flies overhead, we get the double image of the endless procession of sunflowers tilting with the sun through the day with the image of the men in darkness listening to the shells fly overhead, their full attention, like sunflowers, on the possibility of death coming from above.
He also looks at Europe as now a corrupted, filthy version of its former self - streets filled with whores, stage lights too bright, and unimpressive orchestras - a far cry from that beautiful culture of 1000 years. Dos Passos describes these intemperate desires that prowl around like cats in the night and only the foggy shadow of Notre Dame cathedral looming into view and then disappearing again as if it's an image of fading morality and fading power, too.
The images of the inhumane are on every page, first with the description of the young man with no nose and mechanical pieces for a jaw. Martin lingers on the sight of the the man with no nose and Dos Passos links this to the rest of the novel by continually describing what things smelled like which marks the worst of the dangers, the poison gas. He also uses the imagery of ripe and overripe fruit and vineyards to subtly remind you of the terrible devastation to a human body hit by a shell.
All this makes for compelling and unforgettable imagery and Dos Passos comes very close to creating a real masterpiece. However, he falls short. He falls short in his main character, Martin who though not surprisingly is idealistic (as many young people) I never could actually believe as a character. Martin never seemed to be truly effected by the war, he doesn't really seemed changed by anything. The title would suggest that he is 'Initiated' at some point, but other than being introduced to the terrible sight of war, I never could really believe a lot of what he had to say or even his own thoughts - they seemed to be too much of a writer trying to "SAY SOMETHING IMPORTANT" but not stay true to a real character.
Hemingway, who, like Martin, drove an ambulance during the war, in his novel 'The Sun Also Rises' gives us all we need to know about how the war changed his main character, Jake, with an injury that is only ever implied. Dos Passos never does anything with Martin except move him around and have him look at the war. I felt very disconnected at times to the tragedy going on on every page and really wanted Martin to act.
However, in the end, all we get is a very long sequence where the young men sit around and argue about a socialist revolution after the war. We get a lot of moralizing from Dos Passos (though his characters) about the evils of the rich and the glory of the working class. And while I don't necessarily disagree with him, it was boring and felt out of place. This was the section of the book where he should actually have given something for Martin to do, not just sit there and listen some more.
Yet as a first novel (novella) there are clear signs of the genius of the writer Dos Passos would soon become. This is a very strong work stylistically and he really put you into the theater of the war, if, unfortunately, not so much emotionally.
I think about how often this novel has been imitated, especially in film. So much of the imagery, scenery, situations, and nightmare-like qualities has been copied and parodied to the point that it's amazing the (somewhat pejorative) term 'Kafkaesque' actually has any meaning at all.
Yet even though some of these bizarre images are well known to us now, they are nevertheless still as powerful as they were when Kafka fever-dreamed these words onto the page. And the reason why is that you have to experience this novel as a whole, get caught up in it, go on trial with Joseph K., and judge him page after page. The spell is in the words, in the way Kafka immediately arrests you in the very first sentence of the novel and never lets you go. No homage or parody even comes close to conveying the frightening paranoia, the claustrophobic closeness, the gloomy heat and fog, the grinding and wearing down of K (and us), the confusion, and the logic that has no logic.
Of course Kafka wasn't onto anything exactly new; bureaucracy and all the complaining about its red tape goes back as long as there has been a civilization. But what Kafka does bring new to the table, a table set by Gogol, waited by Dostoevsky, and later cleaned up by Solzhenitsyn, is describe the insidious hilarity of the proceedings of modern life.
Gogol, in Dead Souls and The Overcoat, saw the absurdity in the bureaucracy of 'the system'. Dostoevsky saw how the man was judged by it, and Solzhenitsyn experienced first-hand the oppression of 'the system'. Where Kafka fits neatly in is that he predicted how those in power could obfuscate what the rest of us took for granted as a clear and moral system (the law) and pervert it towards their own end. Gogol's hero in Dead Souls merely took advantage of a loophole but wished to make good on the deception, he wasn't out to hurt anyone. Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, was guilty as hell and the system used cunning, clever and a big stick to get him to admit his crime, but the law was still just even if it was oppressive. Solzhenitsyn (Ivan Denisovich), was innocent, but Kafka had foreseen the future where the guilty were all innocent (and in charge) and the innocent were all guilty (and powerless). Kafka bridges the gap not only through art and literature, but in reality, too.
But Kafka does much more than his comrades; he manages to capture much more than a snapshot of a system gone bad, he captures the irrationality, the total labyrinthine and convulsed logic of the gatekeepers, and the out-of-control nature of the machine. No other writer has been able to capture the very feeling of a dream, to hold together a series of disjointed ghosts that connect in a foggy logic that totally falls apart the moment you wake up. And that's what Kafka was hoping for too, he wanted the reader, and to a greater extent, the entire world to wake up from the nightmare.
Yet that was not to be, and he was never that optimistic. He understood that even those who were in power were totally helpless against the system anymore. Nobody is in charge of the system because the system runs itself.
The best way to explain it to modern readers is to imagine the recent financial crisis and how impossible it has been to actually figure out whose fault it all was. The homeowners blame the banks because the banks gave cheap, poorly vetted loans. The banks claim they did nothing illegal and were only providing for their customers who wanted loans and whose paperwork was, legally, in order. Besides, the people who own the banks were, in fact, the homeowners who had 401k's and stocks and other financial products in the banks that were in everyone's best interest to continue out-performing last year's numbers. And the lowly bank clerk would not turn down a loan because he was afraid he'd lose his job for not making quota - and same for his boss. And the men at the top? They had to keep reporting to the share holders who demanded better returns.
And on and on and in a circle and nobody was to blame because it was all out of control by slight degrees.
And that's what Kafka was getting at here in the Trial. That's why the Trial was not a legal proceeding in the way we understand it, but a social one, a trial of one's own character, a trial where the only was to be declared innocent is to admit you are guilty because we are all guilty of one thing or another. It's like littering: one person tossing their coffee cup out their speeding car window does not make a major difference, but 100,000 drivers doing it one just one highway everyday for 10 years makes a huge mess. Oh sure, YOU might not be the problem because it's all those other people, but we are all the straw that breaks the camel's back.
We twist our own knife, either by never taking responsibility or by never changing the system, hard as that may seem. Yet if there is any doubt how terrible it can all turn out for each of us, look no further than Solzhenitsyn who suffered so much in the Gulag, or even Kafka's own family just a few years after his work was published - they all died in the concentration camp. Who stepped in to change those systems? Nobody. And they couldn't help themselves, they were truly innocent, but the world sat on its hands and did nothing. We were all guilty.
And we will be guilty again, too. We may never see concentration camps and wars like the 1940's again, but we still live in an absurd world with absurd rules and we don't really struggle against it too much because we've learned to be complacent, we've learned to sit on that stool next to the door and let the doorkeeper keep us out solely because he said we cannot enter.
One final thought: like Dead Souls, this novel is also an unfinished work and though it would be impossible to predict what Gogol or Kafka would have accomplished had they finished their masterpieces, the way they are left to us seem almost more complete than had they had been all wrapped up with a nice ending. I like that there is no real resolution, or, at least in The Trial, I love the disjointed nature of each scene, how characters come and go and how one thing that is important on one page is utterly forgotten on the next. It's as imperfect and incomplete as the world we live in.
This would have made a better play than a novel.
I love a book that gets me thinking about ideas that I was either dimly aware of previously or gave me an insight into something completely new. On the other hand, I love a good story, too. When one of these concepts so outweighs the other I feel let down and Wilde let me down with Dorian Gray in the way Dostoevsky almost let me down with 'Crime and Punishment': too much philosophizing and moralizing. All the characters talk too much and we wind up sitting around stuffy rooms listening to someone who won't shut up. It's tedious and makes me feel like the author is just trying to show off.
I will say that I liked Wilde's humorous cynicism because unlike 'Brideshead Revisited' which was full of hateful people who all hated each other, Dorian Gray's hateful people are fun and interesting and are content knowing how debauched they all are - in fact they revel in it.
Yet the problem with the book is that it's not really a book, it's just a collection of stage pieces for the characters to talk inside of. We move from one room to another without much sense of place (something Dostoevsky at least managed to do a much better job at) and all the action pretty much happens off-stage. The best parts of the story were when Dorian went down to the wharf to find a quiet opium den - that whole sequence was well written and interesting. However, not much really happens and we're forced to take the word of everyone that Dorian is a total monster.
And here's the thing with Dorian - aside from his vanity, what do we really know about him that would convince us he's a horrid person whom all good society would sneer at and leave the dining room when ever he entered it? Yes he became a murderer, but that was after we learn people have despised Dorian for years. Wilde does nothing to show us why everyone hates him other than assume we'll believe people are all just jealous of his eternal youth. To me, Dorian was shallow and vain, but that's not enough for me to believe he corrupts people to the point of suicide. The whole idea of him is presented poorly.
Funny as this might sound, but this book would have been much better had Stephen King wrote it. King would have made Dorian more realistic as a human being, we would have seen his flaws and his good points, and we would have been drawn much further into the Gothic setting of London and this macabre idea of the painting as the soul. In fact, King's 'Pet Cemetery' comes sort of close to this idea, but that had more to do with greed than it did with anything to do with vanity.
But it's not fair to talk about the book I wanted; I can only talk about the book I have in front of me.
And Dorian Gray is not that great of a book. I enjoyed the banter for what it was, enjoyed how Wilde tows the line between cold cynicism and cold reality (a distinction many people still can't make), but it all sort of felt empty and the ending was weak, too. I didn't feel like it led up to that moment more than I felt Wilde just wanted to get the book over with and decided to end it with a predictable scene.
Still, there is a lot to think about here, especially for someone, like myself, who is no longer 'youthful'. There is much good in youth and much folly too, however it does get a little to easy to play 'the grass is always greener' game when comparing youth to age. Besides, people are more than any one snapshot in time, they 'contain multitudes' and can't be judged only one way because of a single youthful indiscretion. People are allowed to change, and even though Dorian was the same on the outside, he grew on the inside; he was not the same person whom the portrait captured 20 years previously and so Dorian was not bound to some hellish existence where he was static and never changing in all aspects of life - just in appearance. So then why did Wilde condemn Dorian so badly? Was Wilde saying every bad decision we make in youth has to haunt us forever? I disagree.
The other point I'm sure WIlde was trying to make was on of the meaning of art. Art, unlike people, is a snapshot of a moment from the artist's mind - art is eternal, it's subjects never aging or corrupting while we, the audience, grow old, cynical, and die around it. The idea of turning a piece of art into a human being, while a fantastic idea, is not explored as well as I hoped by Wilde. Wilde had an opportunity to explore how people really interact with art and how more realistically they would have grown more fond and nostalgic over Dorian as time wore on and not grown to despise him.
I will add that the book is worth reading even if it isn't all that great - the ideas are interesting and the humor first-rate, it's just not a really well written novel - it's a play masquerading as a book and it would be a very fun play if staged well, but here, as a novel, it feels too Socratic in its otherwise Gothic, foggy, mysterious, London setting.
Not until I got the the very end of the book (the chapter dealing with stage/film/radio adaptations) did I became aware of the nearly 'Klein bottle' structure Dr. Sacks writes with and tries to explore in his patients here. The book, and the patients, begin with the outbreak of encephalitis lethargica, they survive, however, become severely Parkinsonian and are prisoners in their own bodies, yet to a person still retain their own uniqueness and can't actually be defined by their disease. When they are 'awakened', each person is effected differently and often profoundly, sometimes uniquely each time they are given L-Dopa, and some even get better. Then the strange happens when the actors who portray these people, especially Robert DeNiro, almost become Parkinsonian themselves, to the point that Sacks can't actually tell what's going on. Just like many of the patients could almost 'choose' to get better or not, so too could the actors choose their own methods and the levels of profundity.
When these actors mirror back what Sacks studied, we get a strange picture of illness and health, of a sound mind and a hallucinatory mind, of the reality that the patients invented to survive and the imaginary the actors invented to achieve a great performance. I almost felt like Sacks wanted to hook up the actors to lab equipment and run a battery of tests on them to see if what some of his patients went through would mirror the test results of what the actors put themselves through.
And at the heart of all this is identity. Most profoundly, and the point Sacks truly wanted to make (and still makes) is that patients are, in fact, human beings who are not defined by a disease but are wholly just human beings who need the treatment from a doctor who treats them as a human being.
This is where the controversy comes in, too. Medical science is supposed to deal in cold, hard facts. A doctor does not get emotionally involved in their patients lives because that would destroy the objectivity of the professional. Or so they would say. I, like Sacks, disagrees. The WHOLE person must be treated and the person cannot be defined by what 'ails' them, but only by who they actually are: a person who needs to feel better.
Sacks shows how even among a small sample size of patients all suffering from the same basic root disease, post-encephalitis lethargica, they each present in completely different ways, revive in different ways (and sometimes not even at all) and each presented a totally unique set of medical circumstances. Up until Sacks these people had basically been wasting away in a ward in an old hospital in New York - a group of profoundly disabled, Parkinsonian patients with no hope for anything better. But after Sacks, they were at least given a chance to be seen as human beings, even if they didn't actually get better.
And that couldn't be more clear than in the case of Leonard who, at the very end, cursed his awakening as a cruel joke. How much more human could that be? Sure, we may dream up a more romantic, a more stoic role for ourselves if we imagined being in his place, but honestly Leonard was almost more than human in his imperfections and passions. He wasn't just a man suffering from total disability; you can't 'define' him that way because he was a complex human being with as many faults as pluses.
So finally what Sacks is getting at is the notion that we need to recognize the basic humanity in each of us, and especially the stranger to us. It is no wonder that the disease that Sacks wrote about first began claiming victims around the time of the WW1, a terrible war that brought the world together to kill itself. This disease was, sort of, a remnant of that terrible time, a reminder that to treat each other with un-humanity that we could suffer the same living-hell fate of having our own humanity taken away by doctors and loved ones while we rot in a useless body but with an almost perfect mind.
For all the 'great books' that have been written, for all the stuffy tomes that everyone lies about having read, for every recommendation by Harold Bloom, there are a lot more genre works floating around the bookstore. Oh, sure, we know what we should be reading, what we're told since grade school are the 'proper' books for 'proper' little minds, but how many people read those books? How many people really care to read those thick, dense, intellectual, impenetrable, novels by dead white men?
Books like Martin's, however, are fun and exciting and full of twists and deaths, and everyone is reading them and so it's also fun to keep up with your friends so you can keep up at parties when people talk about Game of Thrones.
Yet is this distinction fair? Can Martin's book(s) never be considered a great book? What makes a great book? Some college professor might say a great book is one that opens your eyes to the vast human experience in such a way as you have never experienced it before, or has plumbed the depths of human psychology so deftly, and so realistically that it nearly transcends art itself.
But who is to speak up for a well told story? What about Homer, for example? Oh, for sure, we all think of the Iliad and the Odyssey as great works of high art, but when they were fresh and new and poets were shouting those stories over the sound of crashing wine dark Aegean waves along a white rocky Athenian coast on hot, summer festival days, they were just grand stories that entertained the crowds. They were, gasp, popular!
And what 'great art' is ever popular? How hard are Don DeLillo book signing tickets to come by? Ever scalped your season pass to the Kafka museum to the highest bidder so that you might afford a once in a lifetimes 'Night With Richard Ford'?
Of course, it's unfair (and also plain wrong) to claim that because something is popular it is somehow a metric of quality or because something is obscure and has the word 'aesthetics' in the title it is somehow automatically good.
Yet I don't think it's so simple either.
Why can't something that is good also find a wide audience? I sometimes wonder if artists too often stick their heads up their own asses in an effort to shun popular society. There does seem to be a disdain for 'the unwashed masses' by the hipster set who only qualify the unknown with a seal of approval. In fact, Martin's book here gets upturned noses from the 'arty' crowd because they're 'just silly kids books'.
But are they?
How many other serious novelists are exploring the world we really live in, a world that actually is a little dangerous and full of manipulative people who are quick to take advantage of another person's weakness? I mean, look at politics (any era in history), it's full of the very people Martin is writing about and he's practically giving us a field-guide to understanding and observing your everyday nefarious evil-doers.
Martin is, at the heart of it all, writing about the sad reality of the world we live in where most of us have very little influence on the world around us, are at the mercy of powers much greater than us, where a lot of our lives are filled with mind-numbing sameness and struggle and sacrifice and when we think about it realize that there's not much we'll ever be able to do about any of it.
Yeah, that sounds pretty depressing, but it's just reality. We do the best we can with what we have, we find our happiness where we can because life is tough and we don't want to be bothered with a bunch of highbrow ass-talking nonsense; we just want to come home from work everyday, kiss someone we love, and relax for awhile and hope someone can tell us a great story about people just like ourselves but who also have the advantage of a few dragons, a needle, a hound, a wit, and a few fantasies we don't so that we can live a little vicariously through a more interesting person's life.
We also need to be careful and recognize that art that is the product of its time might one day be considered great art in a later time; not in the snooty sense of (textbook definition) great art, but in the Shakespeare, Homer sort of way - art that speaks to the people because it doesn't lie to them while also entertaining them too.
A great artist can speak to the truth and speak to the people at the same time. More artists, both serious and pop should take note.
Anyway, the book bloody rocks.
Brideshead Revisited is a beautifully written book about very ugly people. In fact, by the end of the novel I was actually grateful that Hitler was just off-stage, sharpening The Wehrmacht and readying the iron bombs for dropping on all these self-centered, self-indulgent, wearisome British zombies.
Structurally the novel is perfect and if we were ever to wake up one sunny morning mysteriously conferred by God with the gift of being an editor of literature, Brideshead Revisited would be the new War and Peace. Everything from the wonderful framing of the novel with Charles 'revisiting' the estate, to the beautiful language Waugh writes so effortlessly in, to even the subject matter of the ending of the British aristocracy - it's all quite 'perfect'.
Trouble is, (nearly) everyone in the novel is a priggish snob, a bitter, hateful gossip, a languid zombie of pre-war 'British-ness', a dying relic of a hemorrhaging Empire, and all around a collection of nasty specimens exhibiting the worst of privileged humanity. Worse still, the main character, Charles, floats about through life with a detached aire that would make a ghost jealous.
In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë managed to write at great length how people can be cruel and nasty and wicked to each other and yet by the end of her masterpiece we loved everyone (even if there was a sense of Stockholm Syndrome to it all). Here, Waugh does not endear the characters to us in any way - we do not care much about them by the end any more than we began the novel with. They change very little.
In Remains Of The Day, Kazuo Ishiguro gave us a similar setting of England on the verge of war with Hitler and an old manor home coming to terms with the new world order. Yet where Ishiguro manages to make a stuffy, detached, brutally professional and dedicated main character (Mr. Stevens) and his master, the naive and member of the old guarde Lord Darlington, Waugh in this novel just shows us how awful these people all are - how out of touch, how insulated they were and how lucky we all are to have had Hitler drop all his bombs on them for half a decade.
Not that showing us the bad side of humanity is a bad thing and I most certainly do not believe art needs to be life-affirming and every novel needs to be populated with a Tolstoy's 'Levin', however, when we have nothing to sympathize with, not even a shred of decency, then we run the risk of not caring anymore what the author's intent was (to show the final decay of British upper-class) and just keep turning the pages because the language is beautiful and hoping someone gets a bomb dropped on their head.
Not that it's all terrible. Sebastian verges on becoming a wonderful character, but he's under utilized and Waugh seems to be counting on the fact that we'll all just be smart enough to see how Sebastian just wants to have fun and not be around miserable people all day long (his family). Yet by the end we have become Sebastian - drunk with Waugh's language and twisted up on the doorstep of a North African monastery in a puddle of our own urine and vomit, the faint flicker of life somewhere in our out-of-focus eyes that lets the monks know we're not quite dead yet and that they should attempt to kindly revive our stupor.
Anyway, Sebastian is written out of the book just past the half-way point and isn't brought up enough again for us to care really what ever may have actually come of him. I think Waugh just forgot to follow the thread of Sebastian being the only likable character in the novel and decided to see how far he could depress the reader.
I might have been able to forgive Waugh a bit more had he been a bit more on-the-nose with his theme of class and 'caste', but he even wrote the modern equivalent of an every-man, Hooper, as a dolt. By the end we just have Charles as a middle manager in the Army, dissatisfied and at the same time almost happy that he, partially, ruined an entire family's life.
Oh, sure, it's not a bad thing that these types of people are no longer around. The fall of this class of British society is no bad thing for humanity and it serves as a reminder to the rest of us 'plebs' how much contempt the upper-classes truly and surely have for us living in the gutter of Rome. We should never forget that there are few noble Levin's and Pierre's in the world because most of the well-to-do are the banks in Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath' or the cheat who tries to blame a crime on a poor prostitute such as in 'Crime in Punishment'. The real world is full of contemptible characters who are glad they 'got theirs' and will make damn sure you don't see any of it and want you to just go away and not muck up the pretty scenery with your dirty, filthy, unwashed, and unclean odors.
And maybe I wanted Waugh to just go all the way - maybe I wanted him to side with the upper classes and not leave us with the final note of gleeful revenge at seeing the end come so painfully to those who deserved it. Maybe if Waugh had been full on conservative and not hinted at the popular liberalness I keep harping on about, then I would have not felt so terrible about all this and could pass it off as a 'Ayn Rand-ian' warning to the well read about how the rich and conservative want to rule the world.
Alas, that's not to be. Waugh leaves us with an unclear image of his true intent, paints an ugly picture with beautiful paint, and manages to just depress the hell out of me.
Finally, for as beautifully written as the novel is, I already feel like I've forgotten most of it. There is such a fleetingness to the whole affair, a lightness to the events of the story that I had a hard time feeling anything that happened was even important. Even the scene on the ship, with its humor, felt empty and shallow.
Maybe what the book lacked, a book that talked so much about religion, lacked a soul. There was no heart in any of it, just indifference, decay, and unimportance in a world that was quickly to become very important with bombs, armies, firebombings - a clearing of the old undergrowth and dead brush.
In the end, not the most interesting subject matter, and at best, the whole thing was not as artful as others have managed to be with somewhat similar subject matter. Go read 'Remains of the Day', 'War and Peace', and 'Wuthering Heights' instead.
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