Archive for the ‘Postmodernism’ Category

Book #64: Mercier and Camier

Mercier and Camier was my first contact with Samuel Beckett. Prior to my reading to this, all I knew about him was from the show Gilmore Girls.

At one point Emily is complaining to Richard about something, but he’s reading and not listening. She whines that he isn’t listening. He says something to the effect of, “Sorry, it takes a minute to emerge from Beckett. He’s a strange man.”

I guess I was expecting something more bizarre than what I got with Mercier and Camier. I’m told, though, that this is one of Beckett’s more accessible works, so maybe that’s the reason. I’ve also heard that people who study Beckett hate this book. They say it doesn’t fit with the rest of his amazing body of work.

I’m not sure what I say.

Though I haven’t read any of Beckett’s other works, I’m fairly comfortable guessing that Mercier and Camier isn’t nearly as profound as other books he’s written.

However, I think that there’s something about the futility of what Mercier and Camier are doing that fits in nicely with (what I imagine) the rest of Beckett’s works. Basically, two men, Mercier and Camier, are compelled to go on a journey. They have to leave. And they have to leave now. Or tomorrow morning. Or after they repeatedly miss each other at the meeting point, as they wait, decide to take a walk and check the meeting point again, and then return to find the other not there.

It’s never clear what, exactly, the men are trying to accomplish or where they’re going. They leave wander around their city, they leave their city, they come back to their city. They never really get anywhere, but it’s dreadfully important that they’re going.

The book is funny (see what I wrote about them repeatedly showing up at the meeting point and just missing each other). The narrator is very dry, and the characters have an odd logic sometimes.

Overall, I think Mercier and Camier is an interesting read. I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t want to accidentally be drawn into contemplating the futility of everything we do, even if we think it’s important, but it’s still pretty interesting.

As to whether it deserves the flack it gets from some scholars, I’ll have to read more Beckett and report back.

Rating: ****
Up Next: The Master

Book #42: The Enormous Room

I wasn’t sure what to make of The Enormous Room.

Maybe it was because it was ee cummings writing a BOOK. Or maybe it was because I couldn’t tell what that book was supposed to be.

Let me explain – the book is a semi-autobiographical account of Cummings’ time in a French prison camp after World War I. He and his friend spent four months there after his friend was accused of writing sensitive letters. During his time in the prison camp, Cummings encounters strange, horrible, and also wonderful people. All of them cause him to reflect about life and on the way people should be.

The Enormous Room partially reads like a sort of allegorical, philosophical “story” on human nature and the nature of freedom. Cummings is in prison, but he says several times that those were the happiest months of his life. He lost his identity (he is known as “the other American,” and nearly everyone else he talks about has a nickname of sorts) and his possessions (except for the 20 francs he is allowed to withdraw every so often in order to buy chocolate, cheese, and wine from the canteen). However, he is still happy and enjoys his life in the Enormous Room where he and the other prisoners live.

All told, the book should have been a beautiful reflection on life and things. So why, then, did I feel like I was reading a Kurt Vonnegut novel? It was a bizarre thing. At certain points, I would be absolutely sure I was reading Vonnegut. and then I’d realize that I wasn’t. And I could tell by the way it was written. It was just the strangest thing, and I think it ruined the book for me a bit.

I semi-enjoyed it, except for the points when I, inexplicably, wanted it to be by Kurt Vonnegut, and it wasn’t.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Howards End

Book #38: Slaughterhouse-Five

This was my second reading of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The first time I read it, I focused on the funny parts. What with the aliens and Billy Pilgrim being “unstuck in time” and “So it goes” and all, I thought it was a hilarious novel.

This time was different. This time I thought it was beautiful. It helps that Vonnegut’s writing is beautiful. Sometimes, one sentence knocked me over and made me stop and thing (“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”). But what really struck me was all the things Vonnegut says about time and death.

Slaughterhouse-Five felt like a meditation on time and moments. Billy Pilgrim learned to see time differently from the Tralfamadorians. Basically, time doesn’t have to be linear. It can be experienced in “out of order” or all at once. I really, really liked the image of humans as centipedes, moving from baby to child to teenager to adult to old person, all at once. It comforts me to think that you can be young, old, and everything in between at the same time, somehow.

I think about time passing and the way people age all the time. Maybe it’s because I’m 22 and feel really stuck between being a college kind and a ‘real adult.’ I dunno. Either way, I like to think that moments in time can be stopped and frozen forever, even if they’re in the past. Slaughterhouse-Five kind of lets me think that way and reflect on those things.

And of course, I couldn’t end a blog post about this book without talking about “So it goes.” After I read Slaughterhouse-Five the first time, I started saying that (or thinking it) when I read obituaries or heard about deaths. It’s one of the most coldly distant, yet accurate and heartfelt statements about death. Death is a thing that happens. So it goes.

But what Billy says about what he learned when he was in a zoo on Tralfamadore was that “when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.” It’s comforting, isn’t it, to think that when people die, they’re not really gone. They’re still there, just at different points in time.

Whether you believe that that’s literally true or not, I think it’s a beautiful way to look at the world.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Jude the Obscure

Words, Words, Words: The Crying of Lot 49

Wow, Thomas Pynchon. Wow.

The Crying of Lot 49 is an English majors’ book for sure. It’s loaded with all sorts of symbols and great sentences and all sorts of themes and things to interpret. Ambiguity abounds. This book is full of meanings to tease out. It’s almost like Pynchon put together a whole bunch of weird, strange, tantalizing allusions/symbols/what have you and said, “Have at it, guys.” Very little in The Crying of Lot 49 is actually concrete. It’s actually hard to interpret anything because there are so many different angles and avenues to pursue.

Really, this, I think, is what Pynchon is trying to do. It’s an English majors’ book that kind of pokes fun at English majors. We love to tease out these meanings and analyze and over analyze and then go back and do it all over again. The central symbol and mystery in The Crying of Lot 49 is a muted horn, supposedly the symbol of one (or several) secret anti-U.S. mail organizations that may or may not exist in the United States. The protagonist, Oedipa Maas, encounters this symbol (and the group, possibly) when she is made executor of her ex-boyfriend’s will. The boyfriend himself is ambiguous and mysterious and, apparently, at the center of an organization that ground up soldiers’ bones for filters.

Oedipa gets sidetracked from her duties as executor and from pursuing the troubling truth about the bone company by an organization of assassins/mail vagabonds (or so i call them) called the Tristero. She plays the role of detective and follows meaningless thread after meaningless thread trying to get to the center of this great conspiracy.

Like I said before, the book is loaded with symbols. It’s hard for someone like me, who loves interpreting, to even know where to begin.

I think that this book is a sort of warning to people like me, who overanalyze and focus so much on meanings. Like Oedipa, who gets distracted from real life and the importance of executing (is that the right verb form?) Pierce’s will or figuring out the bone scandal, she follows a sort of wild goose chase that may or may not lead to something. She gets sucked into the mystery of a symbol and a vague name. These things may or may not actually mean something, but Oedipa is entranced.

It’s like Driblette, the director of a play Oedipa sees says:

“You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several, about why characters reacted to the Trystero possibility the way they did, why the assassins came on, why the black  costumes. You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth” (63).

When I read that passage, I thought, This is the sort of thing I did in college. I asked questions, developed theses, wrote, and analyzed, analyzed, analyzed. But did I ever get any closer to an actual truth? Sometimes, maybe? But how many times did I not touch the truth because I was too caught up in the particulars.

Second, I saw myself (or my English major-ness) when Oedipa first questions Driblette:

“You guys, you’re like Puritans are about the Bible. So hung up with words, words. You know where that play exists, not in the file cabinet, not in any paperback you’re looking for [. . .] The words, who cares? They’re rote noises to hold line bashes with, to get past the bone barriers around an actor’s memory, right? But the reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also” (62).

Words are just words. When it comes to plays, they are just the framework that allow real life, flesh-and-blood actors to come to life. In a same way, aren’t most words and symbols, even in books just the framework that real-life authors use to give solidity and flesh to ideas? The words themselves often aren’t as important as we make them out to be. Nor are symbols.

However, I’m going to close with my absolute favorite passage from The Crying of Lot 49. The writing is beautiful, and what they say about words and connectivity and communication is even more beautiful.

“Say ‘rich, chocolaty goodness.’”

“Rich, chocolaty, goodness,” said Oedipa.

“Yes,” said Mucho, and fell silent.

“Well, what?” Oedipa asked after a couple minutes, with an edge to her voice.

“I noticed it the other night hearing Rabbit do a commercial. No matter who’s talking, the different power spectra are the same, give and take a small percentage. So you and Rabbit have something in common now. More than that. Everybody who says the same words is the same person if the spectra are the same only they happen differently in time, you dig? But time is arbitrary. You pick your zero point anywhere you want, that way you can shuffle each person’s time line sideways till they all coincide. Then you’d have this big, God, maybe a couple hundred million chorus saying ‘rich, chocolaty goodness’ together, and it would all be the same voice.”
“Mucho,” she said, impatient but also flirting with a wild suspicion. “Is that what Funch means when he says you’re coming on like a whole roomful of people?”

[. . .]

“Whenever I put on the headset now,” he’d continued, “I really do understand what I find there. When those kids sing about ‘She loves you,’ yeah well, you know, she does, she’s any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, sizes, ages, shapes, distances from death, but she loves. And the ‘you’ is everybody. And herself. Oedipa, the human voice, you know, it’s a flipping miracle” (116-117).

So, I guess. Words are important. But don’t get to caught up in interpretation or books or teasing out meanings. Words, spoken words, connect us as people and allow us to act out our lives. Or something like that.

Overall, I loved this book. The writing is amazing, I loved the way Pynchon played with meanings and, I feel, made fun of me for overanalyzing and interpreting everything all the time.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

Book 2: The Crying of Lot 49

I am so glad that the Random Number gods have given me The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon.

This will be my first Pynchon novel. I’m kind of nervous.

This book has been on my list for a few years. One January Saturday a few years back, some college friends and I drove to another town to visit Barnes and Noble. I picked up Gravity’s Rainbow and started at the beginning. Oh shit, I thought after a few minutes, I can’t stop reading this.

Somehow, my friends managed to get me away from the book and out of the store without buying it. Since then, though, all of Pynchon’s work has been on my list. It might be better that The Crying of Lot 49 is my first Pynchon, though. It’s shorter. Not that book length has ever deterred me.

Pynchon has been one of those writers that I’ve kind of avoided with this sort of fearful awe. In my mind I rank him up there with David Foster Wallace (I’m in love with him, even though I’ve yet to read Infinite Jest), James Joyce, and Don DeLillo. I really, really really want to read their stuff, but I’m terrified that I won’t *GET IT*. I’m scared that they’re too smart for me.

For me, it’s the equivalent of going to a party and seeing an amazing guy that is so totally out of your league. You watch him from a distance. You admire him. You might even dream of going up and talking to him, in certain circumstances. But in the end, all you can do is cast sneaky glances in his direction and struggle to get up the nerve to go for it.

For me Thomas Pynchon is one of those guys. For some reason, I’ve put his work on this pedestal and decided that it’s WAY above me. I don’t know why I think that. I’ve thought that about a several writers, actually. And then once I read their stuff I find out that they usually aren’t as terrifying as I thought. Virginia Woolf, for example. I was TERRIFIED to read To the Lighthouse for my English seminar last semester because I thought that I wouldn’t *GET IT*. It turns out that I did *GET IT*. 

So, I’m really excited to read The Crying of Lot 49. So excited that I went on Amazon and actually bought it! Unfortunately, something was wrong with the card I usually use and I didn’t realize it until I’d missed the deadline for one day shipping. Instead of starting it today, I guess I’ll have to wait until tomorrow. I am disappointed. Thanks a lot, Amazon. 

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