Herzog by Saul Bellow – Review

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“For Christ’s sake don’t cry, you idiot! Live or die, but don’t poison everything.”

Writing negative reviews is difficult for me. I used to wonder why, since many of the most purely entertaining reviews I’d read bordered on mean-spirited. They used sarcasm to cut through bloated novels and reveal the weakness in prose, storytelling and character development underneath the pomp.

The more I read, though, and the more I go back and consider the novels I’ve enjoyed after smart, convincing differing opinions which don’t sway one iota of my love for books others hate, I become less and less convinced of any universally ‘good’ novel. There are only ones which let me feel something that is (I know, barf) true, powerful, affecting.

I have picked up books with stunning prose, well-thought out characters, and exciting dialogue, which for whatever reason never connected with me. Herzog by Saul Bellow is one of these. It’s an honest, erudite, and beautifully written journey with a character I loathe travelling with — and this doesn’t feel by design, like with novels about genuine misanthropics like Notes from Underground.

Herzog explores New York of the 1950s a very particular mind-set: a frustrated, Jewish, middle-class and divorced professor. It feels as though every page of Herzog is stuffed with obscure allusions, metaphysics, ornate descriptions, and even more obscure history. These are stereotypically considered some elements of an “important” book: it wants to encompass a whole world in its pages, its extremely erudite, and it expects you to keep up and not complain. Something in the mixture ruined Herzog’s flavour, however.

I felt pity for Moses Herzog, but not appreciation, because I thought the way he looked at the world — and the way I couldn’t help but feel the novel itself endorsed, through its romanticization of this confused, pathetic man. The revelations and story here certainly feels authentic as a character, but this novel has made me realise that I don’t think authenticity is necessarily a virtue in a writer. For example, Lovecraft was being “authentic” in his portrayal of other races with regard to his own prejudices. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticise those prejudices while still appreciating other aspects of his work.

There were things I liked about the novel, the prose particularly, but some of the views being espoused weren’t just outdated (I read Roth recently and thought he found the humour in his generation’s attitudes to gender) — they were spiteful.

Herzog feels like a satire on misogyny written by someone who didn’t understand his own joke. The presentation of Madeleine (who, had she been a man, would have been twirling her moustache), clearly based on Bellow’s actual ex-wife, is simply bitter to read about in an uncomfortable and uncompelling way. It was like having a stranger on the bus rant about what a monster his ex wife is. Romana, Herzog’s new girlfriend, was kind, but her need to please seemed to come from a place of supplication, as almost an apology for her promiscuity earlier in her life — there was one paragraph where Herzog made that point explicitly. Every female character feels like they have been solely defined by the world around them, and so lack the interesting interior lives afforded to the men.

Bellow once mused that “if you opened up a modern mind with a saw things would tumble out in every direction. You pitch yourself headlong into mental chaos and make your own way from there.” This book is mental chaos, but not in the fascinating, LSD-infused chaos of Pynchon; it’s bitterness and learning in equal measure spurted into the face of the world. But there’s real art here, insightful or funny lines that ultimately failed to move me because of the slog of a novel they were surrounded by:

“He wondered at times whether he didn’t belong to a class of people secretly convinced they had an arrangement with fate; in return for docility or ingenuous good will they were to be shielded from the worst brutalities in life.”

This book was simply so far from my tastes that, despite the strengths of the prose, picking up towards the end filled me with actual dread. It’s strange, though, because even while reading and not enjoying the book at all, I could understand why others might love it. The only novel I’ve had a similar experience with was The Corrections, which was at least self aware about how melodramatic and bombastic it could be. Oh well.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens – Review

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Learning to Love Dickens. 

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Until David Copperfield, I had never finished a Charles Dickens book. As a teenager I managed three pages of Great Expectations before throwing it down in a huff. I must have really hated those three pages, because I went the next ten years convinced, not just that I didn’t like Great Expectations, but that I didn’t like Charles Dickens.

This was a fairly stupid thing to believe considering I’d only read around 0.0001% of his total work, but it was one that stuck for a long time. It only took two pages of David Copperfield for me to realize that I’d been missing out. His words can practically produce sparks in your brain.

A young David Copperfield is orphaned and left in the charge of his evil step-father. We watch him run away, come back, fall in love, make some intensely stupid decisions, and, finally, grow up. Think Harry Potter, if instead of becoming a wizard he tries to become a lawyer and novelist. It’s also much more interesting than that last sentence makes it sound.

When older novels are fun, there are normally some hefty conditions. “Fun, but“s, put another way. Classics can suffer from the sheer amount of time that’s passed since their release, and the humour comes across as antiquated and cliche. Dickens, however, is funny, not in spite of the age he comes from but because of it. He saw as much absurdity in the Victorian society as a modern man who time traveled would do.

Money and its numerous stresses keep the novel relevant to our modern bank-and-debt dominated society. There’s a great moment where Mr Micawber gives some basic but much needed financial (Micawber doesn’t listen to himself in this regard), for instance:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Tears are shed (frequently). David is almost angelic when he’s young, but the slow creep of maturity mixed with naivete let him be taken advantage of constantly. It’s sad to see him become more aware of predatory ways, but his innocence withers slowly, so it’s like a child learning that Father Christmas isn’t real over the course of decades.

Dickens digs through the archaic aspects of his society and finds the universal struggles of his characters, who are obviously archetypal but bubbling with enough energy and complexity that you have become intensely invested in them by the end of the book. Archaic institutions likes debtors prisons and Doctors’ Commons feel convoluted yet familiar, and while houses made from boats and ridiculous names might come across as over-the-top, but part of the fun of this novel is letting the melodrama wash over you.

It’s gooey and occasionally sickeningly sweet, but in a good way, like chocolate. The bad guys might as well twirl their mustaches and many of the good characters practically have halos, but there are also keen observations about the horrors of industrial life and the nature of modern existence; think Dostoevsky combined with Disney. There’s no denying that’s this is an over the top novel, but it’s bloody fun too if you’ve got some patience.

Slade House by David Mitchell

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“Tonight feels like a board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.”

Slade House is a lovely looking home. People come from all over to visit, and it has two wonderful hosts. There’s a catch, though: it shouldn’t exist, and the people who enter never leave.

~

If you feel like you’ve heard that summary before, that’s the point.

It’s safe to say haunted houses are firmly established as the great places for creepiness in stories. They’re the go-to for ghosts. With Slade House, though, Mitchell veers closer to the fantasy of Lev Grossman than, say, the difficult to comprehend horrors of House of Leaves, which may surprise readers due to the setting.

This isn’t a frightening novel; it’s not really trying to be. It wants to excite, and does so with spellbinding ease. The pages practically turn by themselves. Originally posted to Twitter, it’s tightly-plotted and fast-paced, with some great twists and carefully developed characters.

Mitchell’s eye for convincing details from modern England is sharp, and he smoothly draws you into well-trod ground by taking conventions you think you know and twisting them just enough that your expectations are subverted.

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The prose is less ornate than in previous Mitchell works, but still lively and occasionally profound.

The characters are engaging, of various classes and temperaments, and feel fresh, as they are far outside of the traditional haunted-house-protagonists template. It’s gratifying to watch as these characters navigate Slade House thanks to this uniqueness, as you just don’t know how they will react

For example, an autistic teenage boy on Valium finds his nightmares coming to life. How could that not be fascinating?

So why is it so unsatisfying?

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Despite its strengths, Slade House is unambitious when it comes to anything outside of of trying to excite the reader. It’s like fast food when you were expecting a three-course meal: still tasty, but lacking in nutrition, and unsatisfying if you were licking your lips in anticipation of prime-rib steak. The narrative and thematic weight which anchors Mitchell’s other books just isn’t here.

It’s difficult to examine why I was left so unsatisfied without going into the ending, so consider this a warning for spoilers.

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Having your supernatural menace be defeated stopped by a never-before-seen hero entirely unknown to the reader is far too close to a Deus Ex Machina for my tastes. Marinus’ appearance may not be surprising to readers who have already finished The Bone clocks, but it’s tonally inconsistent and jargon-loaded.

With such an incredibly powerful protagonist to end with, events which lead up to the character Marinus’ become comparatively pointless. He’s a psychic demi-god, basically; we aren’t relieved when he defeats evil because he expect it.

Normal people don’t matter to the climax of this book. Prior attempts to save themselves without magical assistance were made to seem important, like the dropping of a character’s hairpin, but compared to Marinus’ overwhelming superpowers they simply weren’t.

Any clever solution is shoved aside in favour of psycho-voltage explosions.

The Grayers were particularly fearsome antagonists because their methods were mystical, but their desire for immortality was  understandable. Extraordinary people with selfish motivations being defeated everyday people with extraordinary motivations (i.e. love, peace, and all that jazz) would have been thematically and narratively satisfying.

Instead, we get a psychic showdown. Exciting, but not particularly rewarding.

This ending, put simply, lets out all the novel’s carefully built tension and makes it flop like a deflated balloon.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

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“It now lately sometimes seemed a black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe.”

If I were forced to define Infinite Jest in a sentence I would say: It’s the saddest comedy you’ll ever read. That might sound like a contradiction, but it’s also what makes this book special; serious is, after all, not the opposite of funny. This is a powerful, playful, and mind-stretchingly smart examination of addiction and melancholy which is far more fun than its length and vocabulary give it any right to be.

The plot, like many of the characters, is broken into a very strange shape. Page-long paragraphs detail characters’ obsessions, and the narrator sounds like a lexical-prodigy who has been given a mixture of dope and crystal meth. The majority of the action takes place in the late 2000s, and time has been subsidized; corporations bid to name years after themselves. The Statue of Liberty now displays ads.

This is a novel with Things To Say about modern society’s desperation to escape boredom through entertainment, and that might sound like a tedious subject by definition; in fact, the chapter-long diversions and endless footnotes make it seem like Wallace is almost challenging you to view it as such. Trust that your time won’t be thrown away, though, and you’ll see it’s been made with a combination of fearsome talent and moral fire.

The strength of the language is hard to overstate. While some of his short-fiction can be just as meticulous, nothing else I’ve read by Wallace comes close to this in terms of raw feeling and perception. I felt like Infinite Jest showed me the neuroses of the world laid bare:

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

While who might be perceived as the main character shifts constantly, the most important in my eyes is Don Gately. He’s a huge, square-headed ex-burglar and current addict who’s trying desperately to believe in sentiment again and put his past behind him. In a novel filled with sly wordplay and postmodern trickery, Gately’s desperation to stay sober stands gives the book a heartfelt centre that keeps more playful elements in check.

Whether or not you’ll appreciate this book, though, may come down to patience. The story’s fractured structure begins to make sense as the final sections reveal what might have been happening in the opening scene, and send you racing back to the start for clarification. It is, in other words, structured like a loop. The end is the beginning is the end. It almost demands rereads, and with its size this will be a turn-off for many.

I think it’s worth the effort, though.

[SPOILERS]

I did some head-scratching to see if I could work out the ending on my own. That’s part of the fun for me in a book-slash-puzzle like this one. Although I’ve since read a few of the treatises on this hulk of a book since I jotted this down, these were my initial impressions:

[REALLY, SPOILERS]

Hal is able to feel, finally, but has been trapped in his own mind, likely by the potent DMZ, and is unable to communicate — except, perhaps, with Don Gately through the wraith of his father. They go on an expedition inspired by J. O. Incandenza to find the Master copy, buried inside his skull. The Separatists already have it. Orin had surrendered his mother to make his own torture end, and so she had already given up the location of the Mad Stork’s grave in the Great Concavity.

Whether or not Wallace’s dystopic-vision of our present falls depends on how much you trust in our ability to resist temptation, and so everyone will have a different ending playing inside of their own mind.

There’s something beautiful in that.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

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So… this was unusual.

Alexander Portnoy is a confused man ranting to his psychiatrist about how he lives in a state of unfulfillment and desire, obsessed with sex and his own guilt. This book is like listening to this narcissistic, sex-obsessed asshole for three-hundred pages. Your tolerance may understandably vary.

It is funny, though.

I finished this three weeks ago, but kept putting off writing a single word about it. Pathos bleeds out over the pages, but I couldn’t recomend reading this because it was just so one-note. There are dirty jokes mixed with a weirdly affecting anecdote over, and over, and over again, and if that’s your bag you’re in for a treat, but I got the bored of the humour after a hundred pages. The next two-hundred plus were Roth beating (off) a dead horse.

The moment which best sums up the novel comes when Portnoy’s sister becomes dismayed for the victims of the holocaust. It’s a comparatively serious, heart-wrenching scene. His selfishness, narcisism and self-loathing results in the heart-breaking line, “she sheds her tears for six million, or so I think, while I shed mine only for myself. Or so I think.”

This is immediately followed by the next chapter:

CUNT CRAZY.

Did I mention that when I was fifteen I took it out of my pants and whacked off on the 107 bus from New York?

Portnoy’s Complaint is like a night out in a drunken, messy part of town: it can be hilarious, but after all is said and done your head hurts and you feel dirty.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

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“…she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see…”

Some novels give you interesting ideas to think about. Some create an entertaining stories. Some do an interesting mixture of both of these things. A rare kind of book, however, can transport you into a time, place, and body that are far away from anything you would normally experience, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurtston achieves this with ease and grace.

Hurston creates the humid, vibrant landscapes of South Florida through a dramatic third-person prose style that borders on mythical, but it’s dialogue – phonetic, funny, and raw – that lets her truly shine. Crafting insightful, funny conversations that still propel narrative almost looks easy when she does it. Almost.

The characters are flawed, even the most lovable: the protagonist can seem self-centered;  Tea-Cake is affectionate and funny, but his temper and gambling can make him almost dangerous; her other love interests are cruel, but understandable. That’s why it’s possible to really believe and care about them (“loving” characters can be a trite phrase used to describe mere affection, but in this case it’s appropriate), and one of the reasons why I almost didn’t want the book to end.

I was turned onto this book by an essay by Zadie Smith, who once again is scarily perceptive. Her thoughts as to why the love of Tea-Cake and Janie rings so true despite the deluge of poor romance in a lot of otherwise strong fiction, for example:

“[T]he choice of each other is experienced not as desperation, but as discovery, and the need felt on both sides causes them joy, not shame[.]”

Put simply, what makes this novel truly special is that Hurtston’s characters feel as organic in the way they interact and clash. This is a love story with conflict and heartbreak, but completely devoid of cliche and over-sentimentality. That’s something rare and fantastic.

Cities on the Plain [Border Trilogy #3] by Cormac McCarthy

“He sat a long time and he thought about his life and how little of it he could ever have foreseen and he wondered for all his will and all his intent how much of it was his doing.”

Cities of the Plain is the most focused of The Border Trilogy. It’s less grandiose than All the Pretty Horses, and less ponderous than The Crossing, but extraneous elements which either dragged or elevated the preceding books — depending on your point of view — have been removed: the prose is smoother; there are (fewer) page-long discussions with wise strangers imparting wisdom; there is less rumination on the landscape. This is because this novel is more eager to focus on two subjects more directly: obsession, and the world’s disregard for what you think it should be.

Modernity has swept into McCarthy’s South West. Cars are as common to see as horses, and the lights of cities in the distance are ever-present. The army is trying to claim the land our protagonists live upon. A sense of dread hangs over proceedings like storm clouds.

John Grady Cole and Billy Parham return. They occasionally venture across the Mexican border, which unsurprisingly does not, as those that have read the preceding books can guess, keep their lives simple.

Cole’s fixation on a young prostitute showcases his naivete and with Parham’s dry wisecracking mouth at his side he comes across as more relatable than the confident horse-whisperer of the first book. He is out of his element here, and more interesting for it. The dual-protagonists play off each other in funny and tender ways, echoing lost relationships from the last books which might otherwise have been forgotten, giving a sense of poignancy to the events.

There’s a great sense of suspense as the novel falls into place, the feeling that things cannot end well. When I put it down after finishing I felt catharsis. It’s a great end to an inspired, occasionally fun but deeply sad series that I enjoyed a massive amount. Highly recommended.

The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy

“I look for the words, Professor. I look for the words because I believe that the words is the way to your heart.”

A play which is short but far more powerful and engaging than it should be considering its basic setting. This is nothing but a conversation between two men after one stopped the other from jumping in front of a train named The Sunset Limited. Why believe? Why not? McCarthy preaches but offers no answers, and leaves your head ringing as his characters orate with what I imagine as voices like thunder and light rain. The dialogue here is careful and very, very well written.

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

“And he no longer cared to tell which were things done and which dreamt.”

In rural Tennessee, in the years leading up to World War 2, a boy named John Wesley Rattner’s father doesn’t return home one night. He was killed by a whiskey smuggler named Marion Sylder. The boy and outlaw meet after a car wreck, and neither knows their connection to the other. Nearby, an old man watches over the remains of a body.

Reading this novel was strange. The actual writing was, as is to be expected for McCarthy, distinct and powerful, but the story itself just dragged and dragged. The characters were fleshed out and felt distinct and interesting, but there was just no pull to their narratives. I think it was a pacing problem.

The Orchard Keeper is obviously heavily influenced by Faulkner, with its interweaving stories and bizarre structure, but lacking the precision. This makes the novel feel at times incoherent. When it’s good it’s great, but the majority of this book feels watered down by its weaker elements and as such can feel like a slog. It’s definitely my least favourite of the McCarthy novels I’ve read.