Saturday, June 13, 2009

Literary Update

I began my liberal arts education as a near illiterate. A new college freshman, I had little idea of why one ought to read, what was worth reading and how one ought to go about reading it, nor did I have a particular passion for reading beyond political columns and music criticism. How fortunate then that my assigned work and activities in college took up enough of my time to prevent my reading anything of my own choosing during the academic year, and how fortunate that I met two excellent instructors during the last four years, Professors James Pethica, whose "Modern Drama" remains my favorite undergraduate course, and Harold Bloom, whom I encountered only through published works. Through my busyness and their wisdom, I came to realize that I was not always an illiterate, and have steadily regained the passion and ability for reading that secondary education had stifled. Now I have graduated and know everything worth knowing and that of course includes knowledge of what books to read.

Appropriate then that the first book I read after my final exams was JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, which I first read 12 years ago, and believed then to be the finest work ever written. Sadly, I recant that assessment, but I have never taken more pleasure in a book than I did in that first reading, and I still think that it is a fine tale. I first loved The Hobbit because it was so strange, difficult and terrible, because my the fear and labor of my experience as a reader seemed to mirror Bilbo's quest as a burglar. I now retreat to The Hobbit because it is familiar, warm and inviting. In this reading, I noted a clever parallelism within the novel that underscores Bilbo's development as an adventurer. In chapter 1, Bilbo slowly receives an unexpected band of dwarves into his home, and they tell of their quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain, and in chapter 7, Bilbo becomes part of such a band seeking lodging from skin-changer Beorn, and gradually telling him of their recent adventures. Similarly, Bilbo causes the dwarves' capture by trolls in chapter 2 and must be rescued by Gandalf; in chapter 8, he evades capture and rescues the dwarves from ravenous spiders. A nice touch. The writing is often quite witty, and though Gollum is only lightly sketched in this novel, this is excellent preparation for his brilliant development in The Lord of Rings. Gandalf, however, seems rather silly and eccentric in this tale, a far cry from the sage figure he later becomes. However, Tolkien may intend for our perception of Gandalf to follow Bilbo's in this story, and later to follow Frodo's. However, I do not reread The Hobbit for new observations and experiences, but to revisit old ones, and I will do so for the rest of my life.

Since I like innocent and mollycoddling, I next read John Updike's Rabbit, Run (1960) and Rabbit Redux (1971). Several things are immediately striking about the former. Updike's style in the first novel is original, at least to me, and I think best described as phenomenological. That is, he sequences and paces his descriptions of objects and events in parallel with the sequence and pace of perception, aided by the exclusive use of present tense. This is unlike stream of consciousness writing in that these perceptions are not chaotically ordered, and do not always reflect the point of view of a character, but perhaps that of an undetectable bystander. This style requires a great deal of work to follow, and this first novel was a slow read. The sequel, Rabbit Redux, maintains the present tense, but I'll describe its style as comic realism, the self-consciously difficult descriptions absent, and the events are ordinary and rendered in simple language, but conveyed with ironic detachment.

There is much to praise in these novels, but what is most startling to me is Updike's ability to manipulate my attitudes toward characters and events. The protagonist, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, is a thorough asshole by any rational assessment, casually unfaithful to his wife, neglectful of his son, occasionally violent, and yet I like him and sympathize with his plight and many of his decisions. Furthermore, I thoroughly detest his wife Janice, whose unfaithfulness and mindless conformity are at the very worst only equal to Harry's sins. One could easily my attitudes to sexism - mine or Updike's, or perhaps to the simple fact that we come to like characters that we spend a lot of time with, and we spend far more time with Harry than with Janice. However, I think that it is Updike's emphasis on Harry's incontinence that generates this sympathy. We know that Harry realizes that his actions are wrong and that the cultural trends with which he gradually complies are destructive, and yet his is too lazy or too foolish to act differently - his sinfulness is a lot like ours. In contrast, Janice seems to lack even this knowledge, as Harry so often points out. Updike also manipulates our attitudes toward deaths. Each novel concludes with a fatal accident, though the death in the first novel is tragic, and the death in the second is not humorous, but not so devastating. Ultimately, I think that this is a function of narrative type - the first novel is a tragedy, the second not quite satire. The death in Rabbit, Run is the death of a human - the death in Rabbit Redux is the death of a lifestyle. Hopefully, these observations will win the novels a few more readers.

I hope to read the other two novels in the series at some point this summer, but I've temporarily moved to Robert Jordan's infamous and unfinished Wheel of Time series. The series is notoriously long (11 books, with a 3-volume final book on the way) and supposedly its pacing becomes excruciating around book 9, but about 25% of the way through Book 1, it's great fun with mediocre writing. This is actually my second time through Book 1, but in the two years since reading it, I completely forgot everything that happened, and being unemployed, I have a lot of free time. I intend to read another work after each of these novels until I finish the series, ensuring that I maintain grasp of the plot without boring myself too much. I'll surely have much to write when Book 1 is finished.

Film update soon.

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