Friday, June 26, 2009

The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to

Current book: Look Homeward, Angel
Pages read: 1-70

What's this? An actual post on a Friday? It's practically unprecedented! Your explanation lies in the fact that I worked out, incredibly virtuously, even though it was Friday. Working out is when all this reading gets done, you see. Because if you're going to plow through what can sometimes be the agony of "literary" prose, you might as well do it on the elliptical.

So, I don't know what to think about this book. It was written in the 20s, and it's got that 20s moralizing style about it, but it's also weirdly and bluntly philosophical. Every chapter section ends with a couple of dramatically reflective paragraphs that discuss mankind's existence, the depths of human emotion, and/or the vicissitudes of fate. It all sort of comes out of nowhere, and it's usually presented as a character's internal monologue. I feel like I just want to skip over most of it, as it's both repetitive and unrealistic. It's definitely not a point in the novel's favor, but the storytelling itself, when it's uninterrupted by the blatant philosophizing, isn't half bad.

The story so far centers around Eugene Gant, but Wolfe spends the first 50 pages or so telling us about Gant's father and how he ends up in Altamont, North Carolina, where Eugene has lived his whole life (all eight or so years of it, so far). The elder Gant is a tombstone-carver, a reader and writer of poetry, a raging, abusive alcoholic, and quite possibly insane. He settles in Altamont after wandering around the country and marrying two women who both die (of natural causes, we're told), and then eventually marries another wife, Eugene's mother, Eliza. He spends quite a few years drunkenly abusing the family and waxing philosophical before Eugene is born. Eugene seems to have inherited his father's poetic nature, and Wolfe gives us his thoughts from birth, telling us that he understands everything around him at pretty much a genius level, and only lacks the muscular and linguistic development necessary to express himself. (I find this obnoxiously unrealistic and frankly quite silly.) Anyway, Eugene is now in the process of growing up and learning about the world through the narrow window of his Appalachian experience. He has just begun to attend school and contemplate the meaning of life. (I am not, in fact, exaggerating. The first day he comes home from school, he sits on a hill and thinks about what it means to exist. Laying it on a little thick, aren't we, Wolfe?)

The prose is a bit on the intense side, too. I mean, the guy's reaching almost Lovecraftian heights of description at times. (Heights? Depths? You choose a label.) Anyway, I'm just not sure I can ever get behind something like this:
"Gant heard the spectre moan of the wind, he was entombed in loss and darkness, and his soul plunged downward in the pit of night, for he saw he must die a stranger...And like a man who is perishing in the polar night, he thought of the rich meadows of his youth: the corn, the plum tree, and ripe grain. Why here? O lost!" (13)
You know what the context of that is? Sitting in his in-laws' drawing room after dinner. I mean, I guess that in-laws can plunge one's soul into a nightmarish chasm of melancholy self-relfection , but perhaps we might call it a tad histrionic? I'm just throwing it out there.

1 comment:

  1. I love Thomas Wolfe. I hope you feel the same way. Also, D. H. Lawrence is up next. Oh yeah, he's great too!



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