Thursday, February 12, 2009

Anxious in its sleep

Current book: Babbitt
Pages read: 1-169

I realize that's the same set of pages that I posted yesterday, but I explained myself. Also, I honestly want to stretch this one out as long as I can. That's how much I like it. (I know. Try not to faint. It's not my fault people chose dumb stuff for the list. Where's Dune, anyway? That's what I'd like to know. Ahem.)

I guess I ought to cover what this book is actually about before I start discussing the artistry of the writing. There are plenty of minor plot points to keep the pace going, but really they're all just coming together to give us a portrait of the main character, George Babbitt, and his family. It's 1920, and Babbitt is a realtor in an unnamed state, living in a suburb of a middle-sized city just like your own. (The town and city names are actually interestingly allegorical. While the rest of the book doesn't read like an allegory, the place names, like Zenith and Monarch, give it a vaguely dystopian air.) He has a wife whom he doesn't really understand why he married, a daughter who's been through college and needs to learn to settle down, and a son who's in high school and has ambitions of business success, though he prefers never to work very hard. He has a house like the houses of the other businessmen of Zenith, with all the modern conveniences that are demanded of him by his wealth and station, keep resolutely up-to-date. (A note on the timelessness of literature: you could key words in any of the discussions related to this topic with things like "HD" and "Blu-ray," and they would maintain precisely the same meaning.)

Babbitt himself is a blustery, slowly fattening man of middle age. He makes the sort of dumb, predictable jokes that you've heard a thousand times and hate the universe for causing you to have to force a laugh at for that thousandth time. (There were a lot of prepositions in that sentence, but I trust that you can decode it properly.) In other words, he's kind of an idiot who thinks a lot of himself. He also often resents his wife and family for their demands on him, regardless of the fact that he's a complete hypocrite and more irresponsible and demanding than any of them. Somehow, though, we don't actually hate him. Lewis once again succeeds admirably at creating a character whose weaknesses are incredibly apparent, but are just as apparently results of the illnesses of his lifestyle and the society that's created it. Part of the reader's sympathy for him comes from the fact that aside from his whining about his kids using the car and his wife not taking enough care of him, we know that he's unhappy because of his dreams. He has haunting dreams of a fairy girl coming to lead him away into the mysterious evening forest, from which he wakes up aching for that which he knows not. It's quite heart-rending, actually, and when applied to such an average and vulgar man as Babbitt, aptly points out the universality of the human yearning for escape and excitement.

As far as the plot goes, there hasn't been much upon which to remark. Babbitt is successful, and, at one point, attends a state-wide realty conference at which he gives a well received keynote address. We meet some of his friends, and see that his best friend, Paul, is married to a woman he hates, but everyone else seems fairly complacent. Considering the section I read ended with the Babbitts' summer vacation in 1920, I'm guessing the stock market crash is going to feature heavily in the plot that's yet to come. I don't think Babbitt is going to fare well in the face of adversity.

I've been wracking my brain to try to figure out what precisely it is about Lewis that makes him such a master of his art, and I'm still stuck. I really ought not to like him as much as I do, considering the fact that I have a deep personal aversion to books that are about the depressing nature of the human condition. And yet, here I am trying to make a book about that subject take longer to read. That means that Sinclair Lewis is such a good writer that his subject matter is either immaterial, or, even better, elevated to being interesting by the way he writes about it. He somehow manages to say things in a straightforward enough way that you're never bored or confused, but he couples that technique with tone and diction that lend his prose a sarcastic, satirical, and sometimes even tragic air. Argh. I feel inarticulate; I ought to be able to do better than this at describing it.

Perhaps it's his ability to combine the prosaic and the poetic in the same sentence, and then twist them both to suit whatever purpose he deems fit. Take this selection, for example, pulled pretty randomly from what I read:

"At midnight, as Paul and he blundered to their cottage over the pungent wet grass, and pine-roots confusing in the darkness, Babbitt rejoiced that he did not have to explain to his wife where he had been all evening." (145)

I realize this doesn't seem like much: it's not particularly clever, stunning, or insightful, but look really closely at the prose. He uses the word "pungent" to describe the grass, creating (forgive me for the terminology) a sense-reaction in the reader that's extremely evocative, and then adds the experience of stumbling over roots in the darkness, which is a combination of the the natural image and the clumsiness of Babbitt himself, leading the way into Babbitt's prosaic musing that he's glad he doesn't have to deal with his wife. It's one tiny, unimportant sentence, and it achieves a level of craftsmanship that most authors scrabble at desperately and never grasp. Put this kind of artistry together with the ability to pace a story and develop characters so realistic you can't help but feel that they remind you of dozens of people you've met, and you get books that are truly worthy of the title of literature. I sound like a crazy fangirl; I get that. But I just can't help it. (I love you, Sinclair Lewis! Have my babies! ::faints::)

On a far more unimportant note, the word "cue" was used at one point when Lewis meant "queue." I don't know if it was a typo or archaic usage. Anyone?

1 comment:


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