I’ve mentioned that I’m reading all the time here, even though my tally is nowhere near as high as Danny’s when he was this far into service. I console myself by saying that I also read most of the longform journalism that makes it onto the web and that I’m going through a list of 20th Century Western canon that I never got to in high school or college (here’s the link, suggest me stuff if you think I’ve got glaring holes; I don’t know if Goodreads will tell you you’ve suggested something I’ve already read or if crowdsourcing works when your blog only has twelve regular readers, but well there it is), but really I think he’s just more dedicated to the endeavor.
I’ve got to find material for the blog, though, so I’m going to start reviewing some of the books I go through, either in fast little snippets like in this post or in longer, I-wish-it-were-like-NYRB-style-essays, which I’ll do for Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon maybe.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s — Truman Capote
Like most people (I think, in this particular case), I’d seen the movie before I read the book, and I don’t know if it’s just because you tend to like and believe the things that you see first, but I’d have to maintain that I enjoyed the film more (as opposed to the usual order of things). It’s hard not to hope for a happy ending where Hepburn is concerned, and once you’ve seen her as Holly Golightly, it’s hard to think of the character as anyone else.
Plus the Paul Varjak—George Peppard gigolo bit is fun and it doesn’t play in the novel.
The film adaptation also made an interesting trade-off on racism.
Yunioshi is up for laughs in the movie, but in the novel he barely factors except to demonstrate Holly’s carelessness when it comes to keys. And while in the film Holly is, apart from her gold-digging, pretty unobjectionable, in the novel she throws around period phrases like “nigger-lipping” cigarettes with distressing regularity.
I’ve seen Holly referred to as the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl in one place or another, and in the film, that’s fair: she brings out protagonist Paul out of his shell, frees him from prostitution, and furthers his writing career before the final passionate kiss in the rain.
In the novel she’s even less of a person, more a force of nature—we begin by hearing that she may have been spotted in Africa and other climes; she moves without resistance through normal life.
She passes among us or above us, changing not at all and maybe not even changing us except to leave us with her indelible impression. Our protagonist writes that with Holly a “profound and disquieting loneliness came into my life.” Breakfast at Tiffany’s hums a more melancholy tune than its celluloid counterpart: Holly seems to be everything we wish we had or were, but rather than helping us to be like her, she just makes us more aware of that which is lacking in ourselves and leaves us longing when she inevitably makes her way.
American Pastoral — Philip Roth
AP tells the story of “the Swede,” Seymour Levov (“sounds like ‘the love'”) from Jewish Newark at the end of the Second World War through his first marriage to Miss New Jersey, the inheritance of his father’s glovemaking empire and the Swede’s expansion of the same, the birth and radicalization of his daughter, her bombing of a local post office, her getaway to a Weathermen or SDS stand-in, and the eventual dissolution of the Swede’s family life as a result.
I’ve got a few thoughts here.
First is that Roth (I think, not having been to Jewish Newark in the late ’40s) seems to capture a version of American youth. Like the Sandlot seems to, or how Jeff Eugenides did exactly for suburban Michiganders in The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex.
Second is that Roth starts with a framing device—our narrator is a writer who went to the same high school as the Swede as a freshman when the other man was a senior—that falls away and is never mentioned again a quarter of the way through the novel. The narrative device gets intriguing for a second when we discover the Swede has lied to our narrator and that his All-American malehood is a veneer hiding something terrible, but then a few dozen pages later we pop straight into the Swede’s head, never to return.
Now, I’ve read and been fascinated by the brilliant trickery of framing devices in, say, Nabokov’s Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada, or Ardor, where there’s clearly something afoot, and we’ve really got to concentrate to separate narrator and metafictional editor from the ‘actual’ events of the story. And here, it might be possible (since the narrator decides he’d like to write about the Swede and mentions hoping that the Swede’s brother won’t disagree with his narrative) that the whole part of the book in the Swede’s head is just what our narrator has written and has nothing to do with the ‘real’ Swede…but that’s the extent that we can explore. The whole device seems superfluous, boring, a missed opportunity. Course they gave him the Pulitzer, so…
If there’s any moral stance that Roth’s characters seem to be pulling out of the culture wars of the sixties and seventies, it seems to be some kind of traditional American immigrant ethics. Everyone’s life goes off the rails when and only when they betray the slow familial building of wealth, the selfless service to ones own, and the enclavism of midcentury immigrant communities. The Swede defies his father to marry an Irish Catholic, a union that ends in adultery, unhappiness, and the spawn of an even more deviant child. The Swede looks tirelessly for a reason that his daughter went wrong, and never finds a satisfying answer. To me, the book takes the implicit view that since the Swede betrayed the natural order, there was nothing his daughter could do but go farther afield.
This type of family growth, the hanging together, the gradual building of enterprise over generations, it’s foreign to me. It’s decades removed from my generation’s apparent take. It’s also diametrically opposed to the way I see the familial accumulation of wealth and capital as an obstacle to the definite good of class mobility Maybe the only takeaway is that in our current system, the classically-understood immigrant dream—coming to America, building something your kids can build on—is self-defeating, it’s inevitable result that one immigrant generation’s success necessarily reduces the opportunity for success of the next. Maybe the I-was-here-first-ers are destined to win. It may be that in fifty years, technology will have advanced enough that the current wave of latino immigrants will be able to definitively shut the door on the next one.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — Hunter S. Thompson
I won’t speak to the American Dream in this one, because I imagine everything worthwhile has been said and then some.
The first thing is that Fear and Loathing makes you want to do drugs. A lot of drugs. Which is an achievement in itself, since Thompson (or Raoul Duke) never seems to be much enjoying either his ether or mescaline.
I don’t know if anyone turns to Fear and Loathing for beauty, but it’s there when Thompson thinks back to the sixties.
There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.
So now, five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back
Is this the inevitable defeat of youth by the inertia of the old? Or is it a commentary on the inevitable defeat of a leaderless, platformless movement with too much faith in itself? If we’ve had any parallel, it was the euphoria around Obama and the Occupy Movement, both betrayed by a lack of cohesion and a failure to articulate and act on clear moral and philosophical aims.
I don’t have much commentary on the next quotes. I just thought they were neat.
Indeed: KNOW YOUR DOPE FIEND. YOUR LIFE MAY DEPEND ON IT! You will not be able to see his eyes because of tea-shades, but his knuckles will be white from inner tension and his pants will be crusted with semen from constantly jacking off when he can’t find a rape victim.
Not that they didn’t deserve it: No doubt they all Got What Was Coming To Them. All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their failure is ours, too.
What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole lifestyle that he helped to create…a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody or at least some force is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.