Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Pre-Release review of a Dystopian Debut

Click here to see My review of Stephen Oram's dystopian thriller Quantum Confessions

I was asked by Wordery to do a review of Oram's debut and you can read it all at the link above. It was a scintillating read and novel in its combination of spirituality and science.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dead Poet's Society - Remembering Robin Williams

'The question, O me! So sad, recurring -- What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here--that life exists, and identity; 
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.' - 
O me, O life
Walt Whitman

Dead Poet's Society is the film that made the most profound impression on me growing up, and a huge part of that was Robin William's enigmatic portrayal of Mr Keating. The teacher who even now is not really allowed to exist but gets his students living and feeling, aiming to make their lives mean something. Williams affected me again in Good Will Hunting, he was the master of these roles of quiet profundity, which could reach into the person watching and alter them. That's how I choose to remember him. He contributed some of the best verses in the powerful play. 

Any lover of literature should make watching this film a priority. There are an abundance of references to Whitman, Frost, Herrick and Thoreau - especially the Carpe Diem poetic tradition (which is Mr Keating's ultimate message). Todd is the student I really identify with, afraid to speak out and not believing in what he has to say, and then there's the ultimately tragic Neal. Keating changes their lives, perhaps riskily and unconventionally, but also in a way that ultimately gives them self-esteem and makes them feel alive, for however short a time. The question we're left with is: is living intensely for a short time ultimately more worthwhile than going through the motions for an eternity? Perhaps yes.

Keating is responsible for the best of these boys, not the tragedy. Keating's fate is probably, sadly, realistic but he is a lovely ideal to look up to. Some people I've watched the film with found the ending too depressing and failed to see the hopeful and positive elements - essentially for them the tragedy overshadowed the other messages of the film - which it did for the powers at the school as well. As Mr Keating says, we must always remember to look at things in a different way.

Robin Williams will always be a genius in his own right and I hope that any conversation about depression and mental health that has now been started actually continues so that a real difference can be made in the lives of sufferers and that there's not so much fear and stigma attached to talking about it. 

O captain, my captain - Rest in Peace and thank you for your art. 


'We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.' 

'You must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation." Don't be resigned to that. Break out!'

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Panopticon of Social Media - Kim Curran's Glaze and Dystopian YA

'Glaze is a story about a girl who feels lost in the crowd. Drowning in the noise of so many voices', Kim Curran writes in the afterword to her dystopian novel. It is a book about 'the dangers of social networks', she explains, 'and yet, the very fact you are holding it in your hands right now is evidence of just how wonderful those same networks can be'. (For a great interview and background info check out an interview with Kim on http://www.bigbooklittlebook.com/2014/05/self-published-sunday-glaze-kim-curran/ which includes the TED talk that inspired her). It seems apt that Glaze is Curran's first self-published novel, this was partly because it allowed her to accelerate the process so it stayed topical (it is eerily prescient about Google Glass!).

This is all appropriate because Glaze has had to be promoted almost exclusively through social media - the very thing it simultaneously heralds and critiques. Through this very process its point is cemented. I heard about it on Twitter and seized the opportunity since it was an offer.

Glaze is about a society which allows people (unless they are part of an excluded underclass) to be chipped and access an optical overlay social network at the age of 16. The name mirrors the way their eyes glaze over and empty when they do this. 15 year old Petri Quinn (daughter of Glaze's creator) is desperate to join the legions of people on it, feeling ostracised and alienated all the while she is disengaged. So desperate that she would do anything. The chip she gets illegally implanted with has no filter so she is inundated with all the information - enough to drive her mad. With the help of Ethan, who is also shut out of the system for most of the book, Petri must see Glaze for what it really is and what it is about to become.

As with many young adult dystopias, I had mixed feelings (except for THG, which I think transcends that genre). As in Divergent I found the romance and teenage crush material cloying and misplaced. It might just be me but I hate the romance thrown into books (particularly dystopias!) as if it has to be there (this isn't a criticism of Curran so much as the state of the market). Neither male love-interest was particularly well developed or had a lot of point. (I don't mind the romance in THG because it serves to illustrate a political dichotomy and different approaches to revolution and rebellion - hence works on many levels).

Petri was a fairly interesting heroine, perhaps too normal. (or what the market leads us to believe is normal - why are teenage crushes the main tropes of relatability? In many dystopias love is what has suffered and is not relevant) In some ways - as a narrator I found her obsessing over boys mildly irritating but this was only minor. Her family situation was interesting - if anything I would have liked the book to be longer and cement this side of development and further explore those relationships. Petri's name comes from the means of her birth - artificial insemination, or a petri dish which was an interesting quirky detail. Max, as the ultimate villain, was slightly disembodied, though perhaps purposefully.

With a background in old-school dystopia reading I would have perhaps liked it to get a little more gritty and bleak - perhaps an ultimate alienation or a failure in transmitting that fateful message at the end. The ending followed the YA dystopian mould by remaining slightly ambiguous and unresolved - which I did appreciate. The degree of uncertainty over the future and whether events will just repeat themselves is crucial to this being credible though the final events did feel slightly rushed. The final line 'as we step out onto the road, I look up at a drone camera above and smile' is haunting. It seems innocent at first but is Petri still ultimately controlled by the social media around her? Wanting to get sucked back in? Susceptible to its manipulation on some level? Does a human being's fear of being alone drive them to collectivise themselves in ways that can ultimately be harmful and soul-destroying?

I couldn't help thinking of the notions of trending (which filters what you're exposed to in a personalised way) on Twitter, ships, fandoms and fan armies... individuals becoming collectivised in a virtual militarised way. It's not difficult to foresee dystopia in these sides of Twitter - the ability to group up and attack, defend and ignore other views, engaging only in one reality is dangerous. (As Max explains: 'People like being told what to do, what to think, who to like. It makes life simple for them. No one really wants the weight of all that choice' 427 and 'It's only in defining yourself against another that you feel like you belong. An enemy to unite against' 427It's no longer enough to have individual opinions and likes and dislikes, they must be affirmed by others - they depend on them.

One passage echoes the infamous speech in Huxley's Brave New World -

'we're not supposed to be perfect! We're supposed to make mistakes and screw up... but you've robbed us of all that. You and your filters. It shuts down our potential. Limits our world. Restricts the type of people we meet. The type of ideas we're exposed to. And for what? To keep us happy? Safe?' 
'The alternative is chaos.'
'I'd rather risk the chaos of freedom than be denied the choice. Choice is everything.' 429

I definitely think this is a useful and exciting book for a Young Adult audience, and worth a read for others interested in where social media may take us. I wouldn't say the heroine is a ground-breaking one (I am very interested in female hero figures in dystopia) but it is certainly a topical dystopia and has started a discourse that is very relevant to us all and that other authors will  hopefully engage with in dystopian literature. I am someone who has read a lot of dystopian fiction, new and old, and a lot of young adult literature in this vein so obviously my view is very subjective and tainted by this.

Kim Curran has written a niched, current and compelling novel which deserves attention and promotion on the social media platform especially. I wanted to spread the word about this book and see what people think about it and the issues it engages with so do comment.

Further quotes and food for thought:

'What better way to stop conflict than by ensuring no one with opposing views ever met? 399
'It's like if you're not on Glaze, you don't exist.' 85

'Everyone on Glaze is a walking CCTV, and they don't even know it.' 263 - how much does this resonate with the spying accusations around GCHQ etc?

'Some cultures used to think cameras took our souls. Maybe that's what's happened to us. Maybe our need to document our every thought, our every emotion, has robbed us of everything. Stripped us down to nothing but pixels on a screen' 366

'You were going to call it Panopticon... a prison. Where everyone's watching everyone' 339 is social media a virtual prison? The ultimate form of control?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

'...and then everyone will just fade away': The Man who Watched the World End

'It's obvious now that the end of man won't be signaled with mushroom clouds, an alien invasion, or a meteor, but with silence' 1

I have been on hiatus from this blog for the most part in the final year of my degree. This does not mean I haven't been reading. I have read the entire Game of Thrones series thus far (RECOMMEND), since Christmas, as well as Room by Emma Donoghue (RECOMMEND), The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (RECOMMEND), the entire Divergent series by Veronica Roth (very mediocre) as well as some graphic novels (Maus, Watchmen and Persepolis). Now, with my dissertation handed in I am back. In my dissertation I wrote about the potential for female heroism and assessed some heroic female characters in dystopian literature. So I am back to ramble a bit about a dystopian book I've just finished.

It is called the Man Who Watched the World End and is a 2013 novel by Chris Dietzel. It is bleak, not unlike Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and tricky to read especially towards the end (both because it can feel slightly repetitive but there is also a horrifying twist). It is comprised of diary entries by an elderly man, the last of his neighbourhood who has gradually watched the world of humans and civilization fade away. This occurs not through spectacular explosions or alien invasions but a simple mis-evolution or de-evolution - with generations of babies being born with 'no significant brain activity'. They are referred to as 'Blocks' because it 'was as if their condition obstructed them from the world' (10-12). They cannot reproduce, or do anything at all, but they are alive and so the kind-hearted around them become their carers, as the narrator does for his slightly younger brother.

'So we, the fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters of the afflicted, took care of them and raised them as the otherwise normal people they were, all the while realising this new generation we were taking care of wouldn't be able to produce offspring. And even if they could, they wouldn't be able to raise them' 12

'These silent masses will continue to age until the last generation of regular adults gets too old to take care of them, and then everyone will just fade away.' 16

In his diary entries the man describes his day to day life, complicated by previously domestic animals becoming feral as well as the bears and wolves that populate the area already, as the final man in the neighbourhood while everyone else migrates south. He talks to and cares for his unresponsive Block brother and recalls bits of his life, the transition from normality to the dissolution of human society. There are lots of poignant reflections on the human condition, how everything that once mattered gradually stopped mattering at all and the mystery over why his previously friendly neighbours left in the middle of the night without saying goodbye.

When it comes, even though it takes its time, the reveal of the mystery behind the neighbours is devastating and deeply affecting but tragically and shockingly believable - a true moment of dystopia. Although it was hard to read it gave the book much more impact and gravity, raising it from its slightly monotonous pace thus far. It's an interesting book, I think there are points you just need to plough through but for anyone interested in bleak, realist dystopia this is worth a try.


'No one could understand how a species could change itself in a way that prevented its own survival. It defied nature.' 16

'I take care of him but that doesn't define his life or my own. When you go without many people to talk to, you start forgetting what you really feel. You find yourself hoping someone else can remind you of who you used to be and who you're becoming. Maybe this diary will do that for me now.' 77

On apocalyptic movies and their underlying idealism:

'How difficult it must have been for the people writing these movies to think of a time when humans wouldn't exist at all. Even in the far corners of their creative, inspired minds, they couldn't think of a scenario where every man was wiped out, just most of them. There always had to be a survivor. Maybe this simply spoke to the optimism of the men writing those screenplays; even with an uncomfortable sci-fi plot they had to subconsciously comfort themselves by thinking that at least a hundred people would survive. Someone has to survive.' 87

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

'An Expert at Being Left Behind': Brief Reflections on The Book Thief

This won't be a long post because this book is very popular and deservedly acclaimed but I just want to add my comments and strong recommendation:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is one of the most beautifully written and uniquely heartbreaking books I've ever read. It is laced with metaphors and creative imagery which are not cliched but feel fresh and original and weave together like prose-poetry. 

The following passage is a supreme example, coloured with the extended motif of food/fullness/emptiness/consumption, one of various motifs used in relation to words themselves -  the reading of them, the writing of them - their mere existence: 

"Those images were the world, and it stewed in her as she sat with the lovely books and their manicured titles. It brewed in her as she eyed the pages full to the brims of their bellies with paragraphs and words. You bastards, she thought. You lovely bastards. Don't make me happy. Please, don't fill me up and let me think that something good can come of any of this. Look at my bruises. Look at this graze. Do you see the graze inside me? Do you see it growing before your very eyes, eroding me? I don't want to hope for anything any more. I don't want to pray that Max is alive and safe. Or Alex Steiner. Because the world does not deserve them." (524)

"It's the story of one of those perpetual survivors - an expert at being left behind. It's just a small story really" (15)

Not-leaving: An act of trust and love, often deciphered by children. (43)

Narrated by Death, the story is that of Liesel Meminger, a young girl passed on to new parents, her relationships with those around her and the books and words she encounters during a fractious period in WW2. She develops a penchant for stealing books and this mediates her experience with the world around her and how she interacts with it. Clearly Death is fascinated by her - with an extraordinary capacity for sympathy/empathy and compassion- and the reader sees her through Death's eyes as he/she/it is kept busy in Nazi Germany. The characters closest to Liesel are all endearing, unique and often inspiring in their raw humanity and even as the ending is relayed and foreshadowed before it's even reached, their lives and interactions garner immutable meaning. 

The story is suitably heartbreaking but incredibly endearing and enriching. The narration, from the perspective of a characterised Death works so well, (despite taking a while to adjust to and not question), and it feels appropriate for the contextual/historical reality/presence of overwhelming death. I was in floods of tears at the end, not necessarily because it was a distressing subject (though it is) but because of that rare beauty in how something horrific could have been relayed so poignantly and beautifully and given meaning in unmeaning. This is how to tell a story. Even if the subject matter hadn't been so moving I would have been deeply moved by the depth and poetry of the language itself - the way each image is so carefully constructed and the strokes with which information is relayed. 

Geoffrey Rush is the perfect Hans
This is certainly a book that I would recommend to anyone whether they are interested in history, language, prose, poetry, or generally in the human condition. Zusak shows in this book that he is a master of his craft and any reader will go away feeling enriched. This is one for the ages. 

N.B. I should also add that I happened to see the film before reading the book and now feel it bore hardly any resemblance to the intricacies and affectations of the story, so much of which comes from the language and narration. It also omitted some seemingly small but crucial parts, despite the good casting and performances by the people in and behind the motion picture. 

Further quotes:

(Liesel's perspective): I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I  hope I have made them right (533)

(Death's final note): I am haunted by humans (553)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

"You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice" - What I've Read This Christmas

So I managed to squeeze in several books beyond my uni reading over the Christmas holiday. This is largely because I now have a Kindle. At the rate I've been reading I kind of feel a bit like it's turned me into more of a consumer with all of its instant demand and gratification, but at the same time it's got me reading for enjoyment again. So this is not the end for me and books - I could not imagine not owning some of those most special to me - The Fountainhead, Perks of Being a Wallflower etc. in book form. The Kindle's just been a useful way of catching up on things I half-intended to read but might never have got round to.

I have very much focused on my degree, which is in its final year, over the last few months but I managed to read most of these books in a day each. They are as different as you can get. Young adult fiction (TFIOS), sports autobiography (I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic), dystopian debut (The Bone Season) and suspenseful psychoanalytic fiction (Room). Not all 'literary', eh? But all were very compelling reads and we can't let things get too stale. This blog is not an English textbook of conventional analyses. It's the things I care about analysed, which can be very literary and classic and can be pretty left-field and seemingly random. But that's me really.

The Fault in Our Stars - John Green

This was recommended by one of my best friends and I'd been curious about it because of its evident popularity. But I was hesitant too, because I've read some romance and I've read some narratives which explore cancer and romance, I needed this to do... something more. I'm not usually one to read romantic fiction unless it's got other levels. I understand that John Green is someone who says things teenagers like but I can't help but feel, even though he writes well- simply and both lightly and emotionally, that he's a little over-hyped. I did find the book emotional in the end, because cancer is quite an emotional subject but I didn't really like the characters. They didn't feel fully formed normal people - they were too pretentious in some ways - even just their names! - which is okay to a degree but I couldn't engage with them enough to accommodate it. Supporting characters like Hazel's best friend were extremely thin and stereotypical. So I guess I kind of liked the book but I kind of didn't. In other words, this review might not be very helpful. I have chosen, however, some quotes and insights which I did like and which highlight the books strong points:

'You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice' Chapter 13 - with this quote the book is quite clear that you have to accept it on its own terms, which I respect. Although it charts the depression cancer patients and their families might experience it refuses to indulge it completely, often veering out into lighter territory and even offers chances to laugh at the situation, even if it's a kind of grim, sardonic humour. It's not always comfortable because the situation is serious and sensitive but I kind of admire it for sometimes making the 'funny choice'.

"Even cancer isn't a bad guy really: Cancer just wants to be alive" Chapter 18 - I liked this quote, because I hadn't really thought about it from that perspective. It's a poignant and existential reflection from a sufferer that was oddly uplifting when I read it because it took you out of the personal, human focus and into the larger picture.

"I am not a mathematician, but I know this: there are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There's .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I'm likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful." Chapter 20 - this is knees-deep romance but the idea of infinities being different sizes was quite a successful romantic notion in the scheme of things and passages like this are something that John Green is really good at.

"You don't choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers." Chapter Twenty-Five - Again, it's all about the romance. But it is kind of true- you take risks with whoever you let in - and very big ones in cases like this, so you have to decide if it's worth it.

I can see why people like The Fault In Our Stars, it is compelling in it's own way and will probably make you cry and it has its moments of being 'good' but they are not consistent enough and I just couldn't quite engage with those characters - something just didn't click for me and it's hard to describe.

Friday, August 30, 2013

'You start a revolution one decision at a time, with each breath you take' - Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

On his eighteenth birthday Leonard Peacock, four goodbye presents in tow, equips himself with his grandfather's P-38 WWII Nazi handgun and sets off for school to kill his best friend and then himself. Although I won't go into immense detail this analysis may contain spoilers - so if you're planning to read the book I wouldn't read on until you have. 

From the moment I started reading Matthew Quick's latest novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (FMLP), I felt like this was a book that I'd want to read over and over again. The first few chapters are an acclimatisation process because with this kind of first-person narration you are literally trying to inhabit someone's skull - adapt to their thought-process, way-of-speaking and so on. I personally relish immersing myself in the mind of characters like Leonard, Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Holden from the Catcher in the Rye. It's something that I find a lot of in 'young adult' literature - though not all good quality. You'll also find a similar experience in Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. These are narratives that specifically navigate, in some way, mental health and trauma. Third person narration can miss a trick in these situations. 

Any criticisms I have would be superficial and cosmetic - as well as a musing over the purpose of the 'Young Adult' genre. For example, the font is unnecessarily huge (from the point of view of quite serious subject matter) and the footnotes are a bit awkward to get used to at first. 
Jonathan Stevens makes some interesting points about Young Adult literature in The Alan Review (http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v35n1/stephens.html). It's a genre which has a kind of stigma attached to it - Stevens highlights the 'certain negative assumptions from critics', it is accused of being 'simplistic', 'chick-lit', not literary, and cut off from 'bidding' for 'spots in the canon'. It is a process of categorisation which sometimes does genuine disservice to the material, putting adult readers off and restricting the readership. I made a similar point in relation to The Hunger Games which, rather than being the 'next Twilight' (?!?!) is actually an accomplished, thought-provoking dystopian novel. FMLP is about the 'young adult' or teenage experience but it is certainly not limited to it. Much of what Leonard encounters and goes through is not exclusively 'teenage'. A teenager taking a gun to school is topical in the states but the kind of pain and motivation for his potential actions is universal in our society.  

Sona Charaipotra of Parade conducted an interview with Matthew Quick and asked whether his comfort zone lay in young adult fiction or adult fiction - he responded by saying he tries to 'write about people', to 'climb into their heads, whether they're 18 or 34'. The process is the same, regardless of marketing strategies so I don't think the adult market should be turned away from FMLP. (http://www.parade.com/60875/sonacharaipotra/silver-linings-playbook-author-matthew-quick-on-his-new-young-adult-novel-forgive-me-leonard-peacock)

One of the most crucial characters in the book is Herr Silverman, Leonard's high school Holocaust Studies teacher. 

'Most teachers refuse to close the door when they are alone with a student, saying it's against the law or something, which is pretty stupid. It's like everyone thinks teenagers are about to get raped every second of the day and that an open door can protect you. (It can't. how could it?) But Herr Silverman closes the door, which makes me trust him. He doesn't play by their rules, he plays by the right rules.' (115)

'We sort of lock eyes and I think about how Herr Silverman is the only person in my life who doesn't bullshit me, and is maybe the only one at my school who really cares whether I disappear or stick around.' (120)

Herr Silverman tells Leonard to call him if he ever thinks about taking his own life, and unbeknownst to him the simplest of his actions make the most profound difference. He certainly exceeds his 'professional' role but views it as extenuating circumstances. Which they are, even if it's probably easier to not get involved. Of all the people in Leonard's life he is the one to pick up the signals and act on them. In a GoodReads interview (https://www.goodreads.com/interviews/show/885.Matthew_Quick), Quick was asked about Herr Silverman's role in Leonard's story and I think his response is very important:

"MQ: Whenever there is a school shooting, we ask what's wrong with schools, teachers, young people, and society at large—reasonable questions in the wake of tragedy. But as a former high school teacher who once counseled troubled teens on a daily basis, I find it upsetting that we don't ask what's going right in schools whenever a student in crisis is given the help he or she needs and doesn't end up committing an act of violence, which is every single day. Going above and beyond seldom results in praise or rewards for teachers, but many do it anyway. If you really care about teens and are willing to do the emotional work necessary to help them through the maturation process, there is no harder job than that of a high school teacher."

Leonard's neighbour, Walt, is also a key figure. He spends his days inside watching Humphrey Bogart movies but his constancy is clearly something that Leonard values and something he can't find in people his own age (Walt is a widower). They communicate through movie quotes, managing to say a lot to each other in a language they both understand but with a restricted nature that can also not reveal the full extent of what is going on in Leonard's mind. Leonard gives each present to the four people who have inspired him, in the smallest ways and even without knowing or caring - the ones who gave him moments of value. With his parents very much out of the picture emotionally (an absentee father and a horrifically narcissistic mother who spends her time away with her new boyfriend), Leonard is very much alone with his thoughts. His mother will not let him have therapy because she refuses to 'let any therapist blame his problems on her'. Which kind of sums up his family life. 

There are moments in this book that really stand out. Quick has masterfully created Leonard as character and as voice - his inner monologues contain things we would never admit we are thinking, or do not realise we have within us - he unleashes these built-up incisive and scything streams of perception. Sentence after sentence mounts into a pulsating sensation which is relentlessly honest and, at times, shocking. It's a kind of cathartic anger which is written in a tone and style that borders on charming and humorous in a dark sort of way. Dressed in what he calls his 'funeral suit' Leonard often joins the procession of commuters and 'suits' going to work each day. These people,  a vast collective - commuting every day and every night, for their whole lives. To Leonard, it is the most terrifying thing to observe.  He chooses one to follow, to discover if there is something to be optimistic about in the future. 

“The whole time I pretend I have mental telepathy. And with my mind only, I’ll say — or think? — to the target, 'Don’t do it. Don’t go to that job you hate. Do something you love today. Ride a rollercoaster. Swim in the ocean naked. Go to the airport and get on the next flight to anywhere just for the fun of it. Maybe stop a spinning globe with your finger and then plan a trip to that very spot; even if it’s in the middle of the ocean you can go by boat. Eat some type of ethnic food you’ve never even heard of. Stop a stranger and ask her to explain her greatest fears and her secret hopes and aspirations in detail and then tell her you care because she is a human being. Sit down on the sidewalk and make pictures with colorful chalk. Close your eyes and try to see the world with your nose—allow smells to be your vision. Catch up on your sleep. Call an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Roll up your pant legs and walk into the sea. See a foreign film. Feed squirrels. Do anything! Something! Because you start a revolution one decision at a time, with each breath you take. Just don’t go back to that miserable place you go every day. Show me it’s possible to be an adult and also be happy. Please. This is a free country. You don’t have to keep doing this if you don’t want to. You can do anything you want. Be anyone you want. That’s what they tell us at school, but if you keep getting on that train and going to the place you hate I’m going to start thinking the people at school are liars like the Nazis who told the Jews they were just being relocated to work factories. Don’t do that to us. Tell us the truth. If adulthood is working some death-camp job you hate for the rest of your life, divorcing your secretly criminal husband, being disappointed in your son, being stressed and miserable, and dating a poser and pretending he’s a hero when he’s really a lousy person and anyone can tell that just by shaking his slimy hand — if it doesn't get any better, I need to know right now. Just tell me. Spare me from some awful fucking fate. Please.” 

Woven into the narrative are chapters that are letters from future characters to Leonard. This revealed to be a process which Leonard started under Herr Silverman's tutelage - of writing letters from your future self - reasons to keep on going - telling you it will be worth it. Leonard sets his in a sort of post-apocalyptic future - with is kind of apt because his eighteenth birthday is built up as a personal apocalypse. They don't always offer him comfort but they are something - even if it only helps him to learn to value himself a little more.

Leonard's voice is captivating, frightening, and familiar. His story is moving for all that is unsaid and only implied.  There are some dramatic and traumatic revelations towards the end of the book, which are done subtly and sensitively but they are very heavy subject matter. The ending is open, there is little obvious resolution - but you can't ask things like this to resolve. It's not as straightforward as a happy ending, or even a definitive decision. The note it ends on is both bleak and heartbreaking but also optimistic. Leonard got through his birthday - even if only by accident, and that's a great ending for me - a small miracle. Each breath could be a revolution, literally, of life.Throughout the whole day he seems to be wishing, deep down, to wish him happy birthday - even if they don't know - to give him a reason not to do what he's planning to do.

"I'm trying to let him know what I'm about to do.
I'm hoping he can save me, even though I realize he can't.” 

The few decent people might be enough in the face of the 'ubermorons' but it's not certain. No one can really offer any reassurances. It's luck that Leonard survives but simultaneously a choice he is making if he gets through another day - even if he gets very little reward for doing so. Are his circumstances going to change? There's no promise of that. Is he going to get better? We don't know. There are no guarantees. But on his eighteenth birthday Leonard discovered he has a teacher who would go above and beyond for him and a neighbour who would miss him, and for that day - that's enough.

More quotes:

“There's a lot for you to live for. Good things are definitely in your future, Leonard. I'm sure of it. You have no idea how many interesting people you'll meet after high school's over. Your life partner, your best friend, the most wonderful person you'll ever know is sitting in some high school right now waiting to graduate and walk into your life - maybe even feeling all the same things you are, maybe even wondering about you, hoping that you're strong enough to make it to the future where you'll meet.” 

'Different is good. But different is hard. Believe me, I know.' (121)

'I realised that the truth doesn't matter most of the time, and when people have awful ideas about your identity, that's just the way it will stay no matter what you do.' (57)

N.B. Seamus Heaney, truly one of the great poets of all time, died today. His work will undoubtedly live on, not just as canonical works in our school textbooks but as affecting individual poems in their own right which can be come to at any stage in life. He will be missed.
To read a few go to http://www.poemhunter.com/seamus-heaney-3/

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Individual Life & it's Consequence - The Resurrection of 'Stoner' by John Williams

This book has quietly wandered through the years, deeply affecting those who have read it but perhaps too 'ordinary' in its subject matter to gain popular momentum. It's recent reissue by Vintage Books meant that I stumbled upon it quite by chance - having casually entering a Twitter competition which resulted in it being sent to me. I am glad it was.

John Williams' Stoner (1965) is a classic in the realist style. It follows the apparently unremarkable individual life, tracing its journey from birth to death. It has no 'plot' as such beyond this, no dramatic contrivances- it is subtle, unsentimental and yet deeply affecting because of it. It is written in a style that could be called stoical or objective - it is not heavily emotive in its prose and imagery but this stark stoicism resonates emotionally with the reader who invests in the character - one many may recognise as themselves. Stoner works as a professor in Medieval Literature at the University of Missouri for most of the novel. His life is marked by his relationships with others, failed ones as with his wife and daughter, a fellow faculty member and his protege, his dead friend, and more successful ones with his one other friend and a young woman who attends some of his classes.

William Stoner really comes to life during his university experience and the birth of consciousness he experiences at this time. He stays at this university, the University of Missouri, until his 'death in 1956'. In the opening paragraph his life is downplayed, his achievements seem to be being claimed by a descent into the anonymity that greets most after their death:

'He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses... Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves...' (3-4)

This paragraph lays out the key themes of the book, and those who find it off-putting can put it down at this point because they will probably not gain anything for it. Stoner stands for the human condition for the individual - caught in the throes of life, the fortunes and falls, the lack of recognition, the apparent mediocrity - you may wonder what the point is if this life seems to be so irrelevant. But it was a life lived, an individual who had to find meaning in himself when it failed with others. It is about the reader finding this meaning in the book and realising their importance in the scheme of things is itself perhaps unimportant. The character Stoner may not have impacted many people memorably, but there is still an impact to be had in an individual life immeasurable of the effect it has on others.

Stoner's life changes when he attends university to study Agriculture, intending to return to work on the family farm, and takes a module in literature. This is the moment of awakening, a point where he realises there is meaning to be found even if he never finds it himself. Williams writes such beautiful passages which are moderately harrowing in their clarity. At his mother's funeral, the language used as Stoner contemplates the impact of his parents' lives is unsentimental in itself and yet very powerful through its use of lists and repetition. The words are even derived from the semantic field of agriculture, describing simultaneously their lives and the business and process of farming - equating them. Stoner looks 'across the land in the direction of the farm where he had been born, where his mother and father had spent their years. He thought of the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil; and it remained as it had been -- a little more barren, perhaps, a little more frugal of increase. Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbered. Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them... finally it would consume the last vestiges of their substances. And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves.' (108)

Stoner has such reflections about his own life later in the book - I would call them life crises but they are hardly described in a way that justifies the term. Everything is calmly, objectively relayed - both by virtue of Williams's style and the third person realist narrative. Stoner sometimes feels 'that he was a kind of vegetable', longing even for 'pain' to 'pierce him' and 'bring him alive'. (179) He also seems very self-aware as a character - he recognises that the question of whether 'his were worth the living' is a question which comes to 'all men at one time or another'. It is an 'impersonal' question, one that comes from 'the accretion of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance... he took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge; that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.' (179) This 'grim and ironic pleasure' is characteristic of Stoner - he does not seem to despair, or emote in a very forthcoming way. The narrative is not explicitly cathartic in this sense.

The ways in which this book is a fictional biography lend themselves to the evolution of the character over a lifetime - it traces the subtle nuances of day-to-day life, in marriage, in career, in aging. Every reflection is earnt. Stoner experiences that 'dissociation' from self, that feeling of observing himself as is if 'he were an oddly familiar stranger doing the oddly familiar things that he had to do' (181). It is his wife, Edith, who partly engineers this numbness in her cruel routine, one which encourages such dissociation from family and self.

Stoner is also a historical novel. Williams sets it to coincide over time with both World Wars, the Great Depression and various atrocities and hardships of the twentieth century. Stoner the character, and his way of perceiving the world, the kind of dulled emoting in the novel, is intrinsically linked to the state of affairs and circumstance around him. The war years are described as 'a driving and nearly unendurable storm' through which Stoner goes with 'his head down, his jaw locked, his mind fixed upon the next step', with a sense of 'stoical endurance' (245) yet also an inevitable sense of being disturbed. He is both drawn to and repulsed by the Holocaust, finding within himself a 'capacity for violence he did not know he had'. He feels dissociated, yearning for 'involvement', wishing for 'the taste of death, the bitter joy of destruction, the feel of blood... he felt both shame and pride, and over it all a bitter disappointment, in himself and in the time and circumstance that made him possible.'(245)

Mel Livatino, in his essay 'Revaluation: A Sadness Unto the Bone: John Williams's Stoner', writes about how Stoner is essentially 'a novel about university... writing the novel in the early sixties, Williams saw that the university was already starting to become the mouthpiece of political correctness'. This can be seen in the tensions between Stoner and his department chairman, Lomax, who is sensitive about his physical afflictions and those of his student protege, whom Stoner fails. Stoner is not the Keating of Dead Poet's Society, as Livatino points out, he 'does not love his students' and his reasons for loving literature are tied to 'how it has transformed his life from dumbness to consciousness'. Stoner is not heroic in the ways you may expect in a novel or a film. He is a hero for 'the reader who comes to know him... because against all odds he has overcome his parents' mute existence and against all obstacles nurtured a lifelong passion for matters of the mind and heart... he has prevailed in making himself into a superb teacher despite bored students, a repressive department chairman and his own innate muteness... he is a hero because he endures with decency and patience an impossible wife who is set against him from the outset and a daughter whose life turns tragic... the reader wants to scream into the pages of the novel 'Get out!'... and Stoner is destroyed - but he is not defeated' (Livatino).

I wanted to use Livatino's words because his essay, this part in particular, is so beautifully written and lists these reasons so poetically and emotionally. I found reading Livatino's essay quite cathartic in processing aspects of the novel. It is true that the reader longs for Stoner to escape from his life, his marriage - they long for his affair to continue, for him to enjoy those moments of happiness with Katherine - even for him to take his daughter and run but in so many ways he is held in chains, even by his own nature. The novel is tragic in some ways, perhaps individual existence often is, but Livatino sees it as 'happy in the sense the Stoics would have understood that word, for, against all the harm that comes his way, Stoner prevails in his integrity as a man, a teacher, a scholar, a husband, and finally as a human being of noble dimensions'. For all it's beauty Livatino's style is slightly hyperbolic, perhaps in reaction to the muted-ness of Williams's prose. There are also ways to criticise Stoner - the strength of the character is that he fails in many of the ways individuals do, he is passive at moments and drained by what goes on around him but he is certainly admirable for the reasons Livatino has given.

What's remarkable about this novel is that it was one of the most compelling books I've read even though on the surface it is just a fairly factual fictional chronicling of one man's fairly ordinary life. But alot of those terms seem redundant anyway. There is so much to admire in Williams's craft and I'm sure I will get more from it each time I read this book. It has relevance for every individual trying to make their way in the world, particularly the academic one. It is for the people who give and give, for the sake of something more than a thanks they will not receive.

Quotes and further reflections:

'In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.' 194

'In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion. toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. now in his middle age he began to know that i was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart'. 195

The following quote sums up why Stoner is such a remarkable character, in my opinion. For someone who received so little, he never stopped giving.
'It occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love. But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him-- how many years ago?-by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance' 150

He 'saw the sickness of the world... saw hatred and suspicion become a kind of madness that swept across the land like a swift plague; he saw young men go again to war, marching eagerly to a senseless doom, as if in the echo of a nightmare. and the pity and sadness he felt were so old, so much a part of his age, that he seemed to himself nearly untouched' 251

Stoner understands and accepts the kind of contradictions inherent in individual life. The discrepancy between wish and reality. The sheer effort and the tragic failures which still did not defeat him and his ability to think and process and reflect:
'He contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living... he had wanted the singleness and the still connected passion of marriage; he had had that too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality... and he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance' 275

In this post I have cited:
1. Revaluation: A Sadness Unto the Bone: John Williams’s Stoner
Mel Livatino
Sewanee Review, Volume 118, Number 3, Summer 2010, pp. 417-422 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/sew.2010.0008