Friday, February 26, 2010

Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.

Current book: Orlando
Pages read: None

Oh, oops. It's late. I didn't read and don't really have a recap for the week.

Instead, a poll: does the literary canon have more of a right to be taught in schools than anything else? In other words, is there any real reason to stick to the canon aside from earning a set of shared cultural information? Assuming that there's new literature that's being produced that is as good as the old, why not allow teachers to teach that, instead?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

I do hope that doggy's for sale.

Current book: Orlando
Pages read: 13 - 96

First, a question: Am I alone in my random pet peeve about books that don't start on page one? I mean, look at Orlando - page 13? Really? The blank ones in the front should not count. Maybe, maybe, if there's a preface or something, you can start numbering there, but really, I'd prefer the Roman numeral method if you're so desperate for page numbers, preface-writer.

Anyway. Orlando is quite good so far. I pretty much completely unexpectedly loved Mrs. Dalloway the first time I read it, so I have to admit I was biased in favor of Virginia Woolf before I began, but she's coming through for me on this one, too. To give a little bit of background on the book, it's a semi-biographical novel about a friend of Woolf's, Vita Sackville-West, that casts the events of her life in a strange, sort of historicized light. She's made into a completely different person for the novel, but the events in the book, I gather, are somewhat close to the events of her real life. I don't know that much about how the details line up with Sackville-West's life because I haven't wanted to spoil it for myself, so I'll discuss that more after I'm done.

Orlando, our main character, is a young English nobleman. He is creative and sensitive and writes and reads constantly, regardless of the fact that it's frowned upon by society. He begins the book at his country home, only 16, but quickly goes to court, becomes a member of the Order of the Garter (we also call that getting knighted), and serves Elizabeth in her waning years. Though initially he's the favorite of the queen, and so unavailable for courtship, after she dies he becomes rather the cad, dating several different women in succession. (You can't really call it dating, I suppose, but it's clearly the 16th century equivalent.) During his third engagement (Yes, third. What did I say? Cad.), to a nice, proper young English girl, he falls madly in love with a visiting Russian noblewoman, Sasha, but is heartbroken when she runs off back to Russia with a sailor. Afterward, he's never quite the same, and retires from court to his country house where he secludes himself from society and reads and writes all day and night. He invites a popular writer, Nick Greene, to stay with him for a few weeks, but Greene rewards him by writing a satirical poem about the experience. (Damn ungrateful poets. Sheesh.) As a result, he vows even more vehemently to have done with mankind, and buys himself some Norwegian elkhounds to keep him company. (No, I didn't make that up. Also, look how cute they are!)

I realize the plot doesn't sound that thrilling, although it's not bad, but it's the style that really brings the novel off. Woolf is clever and quirky and self-referential, and it's pretty much awesome. She even says, at one point, in the middle of a long sentence, "nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence..." If only Henry James would mock himself a little, I'd be much more tolerant of his syntactical extravagances.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Paging Dr. Kevorkian

Current book: Sons and Lovers
Pages read: All of them!

So, here's my thing about D. H. Lawrence not finishing what he's started: he creates complex, emotionally interesting characters that are clearly functioning within a realistic society that he's using as a critical model of actual society, and then he fails to do anything interesting with them. There are two major viewpoints one could espouse about this choice: 1 - he's maintaining the realism that he began with and working hard at portraying the lives of his characters in a way that makes them representative of the vast majority of the population, thereby capturing both the truth and the everyday tragedy that is this, our modern existence or 2 - he's failing to develop the potential with which he began into a more complex culmination of his ideas, which would allow his reader to resonate not only with his portrayal of the society he's critiquing, but also with the messages he wishes to convey about that which is good and bad in this, our modern existence. As you can probably guess, I'm going with interpretation number two.

I'm just left at the end of this novel going, "And...?" I mean, don't get me wrong; I understand the point. I get that Lawrence is creating a portrait of what happens when the relationship between a husband and wife is so flawed that the wife is forced to translate her love entirely to her children, especially to her sons. What happens, of course, is that the relationship becomes a distorted one, creating a sense of both resentment and attachment in the child and codependence in both the mother and child. That codependence, in turn, can easily influence the ability of the child, when grown, to function in a normal adult relationship. But notice how this analysis is coming out sounding dry and scientific? That's because the information that D. H. Lawrence is communicating in this novel comes across as just that - dry and scientific information, rather than a plot. It's strange how he manages to create interesting characters that I'm emotionally involved with, and then proceeds to completely lose me on the novel as a whole. I don't often experience that particular issue. Point being, I think he's a good writer and he's got a lot to offer; I just haven't seem him offer it yet. Not one of the 100 greatest, I'm afraid. Maybe Lady Chatterly's Lover will give me what I want.

Oh, also, I forgot to mention yesterday that when Paul's mother is dying, he acts pretty atrociously toward her. There are several months when he's taking care of her during which he scolds her for eating and exhorts her not to, since it will just prolong her inevitable end. I see where he's coming from, but, seriously, Paul, we don't starve the terminally ill to death in order to make the process faster. At one point, she asks for food, and Paul gives her the evil eye, and she tells him that's she's sorry, but it just gnaws so much when she doesn't eat. And he says that it's the cancer gnawing at her. And I'm like, "No, Paul. We call that hunger." Oy. He ends up killing her, actually, with an overdose of morphine; that part I don't have a huge problem with, although you could make some ethical arguments about it. She's dying anyway, and she's in a great deal of pain, so I feel like I'm kind of ok with painless euthanasia, as it were, but starving her to death while she's conscious and asking for food? I can't really go there with you, Paul.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay

Current book: Sons and Lovers
Pages read: 388 - 464 (end)

There isn't really a bar fight; Dawes just gets kicked out of the pub for provoking Paul and then it's over. A few weeks later, though, he tries to confront Paul at work (Dawes works in the same stocking factory where Paul is a clerk) and loses his job as a result. In the process of trying to fight Paul, he accidentally knocks a manager down some stairs, and they end up in court to settle the matter. When the judge finds out that Paul was stepping out with Dawes's wife, he dismisses the suit and sends everyone home with a wink and a nudge. (Man, has the justice system changed. Modern litigation would have dragged the thing out for weeks and fined everyone several thousand dollars.) Dawes does eventually beat Paul up in a field one night, but that's really the end of it.

Anyway, Paul keeps going out with Clara, and everything's sort of at a standstill; they can't get married, of course, but Paul doesn't really want to anyway, so they just keep dating and sleeping together and it's all fine and good. (Apparently unintended pregnancy is not a plot issue that D. H. Lawrence is worried about. I mean, you know, Paul only slept with Miriam for a week, so sure, but he and Clara have been dating for quite some time and now are having sex regularly. Maybe she's infertile, but jeez.)

Eventually, Paul's mother gets sick. (I don't know about you, but I'm thinking, "Thank God," pretty much.) It turns out she has cancer, and also a bad heart, so she can't have surgery. Weirdly, while she's in the hospital, Paul goes to see Dawes, who's also ill, and they become friends of a sort, seeing each other and chatting on a regular basis. (I have no real explanation for that. I mean, sure, Paul wants to assuage his guilt, by why does Dawes tolerate it? They seem to understand each other somehow, since they both romanced and failed Clara, perhaps. It strikes me as odd when I read it, though.) The doctor sends Paul's mother home to die, but since she's ornery and obnoxious until the last, it takes months and months, and she finally snuffs it right at Christmastime. While she's dying, Paul breaks it off with Clara, recognizing the futility of the whole thing, and she goes off and reconciles with Dawes, which doesn't make any sense at all.

After Paul's mother dies, he's all whiny and lost and suicidal. For a brief moment, he thinks of marrying Miriam, and she offers, because she has no self-esteem at all, but he can't make himself do it, even to be taken care of. In the end, though he wants to follow his mother into death and turn away from the world, he decides that he has to keep going, and there's a little metaphorical scene at the close of the book where he turns away from his contemplation of a dark field toward the lit-up town.

I'm going to formulate thoughts about the whole thing and conclude tomorrow, I think. There's a lot going on, and I want to give it its due, so there'll be a wrap-up post for this one before I start on Orlando. I'll just say this to be getting on with: I think Lawrence has some issues with finishing what he's started.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The female sexual impulse

Current book: Sons and Lovers
Pages read: 290 - 388

Look! I actually read! Being sick takes the ability to read literature right out of you, I swear. Also, as I've mentioned, I read on the elliptical, and there is no elliptical time when you're doing your best to stay conscious and upright.

Paul is just getting worse and worse, I swear. He's all, "I like you, Miriam, oh, wait, no, I don't, no, uh, I do now, let's get married, but actually I changed my mind." It's driving me a little crazy. In actuality, what's happening is that he's feeling pressured to get married because he's reaching the proper age for it (24 or so), and his only real close relationship with a woman (besides his creepy mother, of course) has been with Miriam. So he feels like he has to marry her, but emotionally, he has no desire to tie himself to her. (What about Clara, you ask? Well, it turns out that Clara's actually married, though she's separated herself from her no-good husband and lives with her mother. She is, for all intents and purposes, unavailable.) There are a couple of reasons behind it: he thinks she makes him always serious, and he feels self-loathing when he's physically attracted to her, which is caused by the fact that she sees sex and sexuality as off-putting and tedious. I can't really blame him for finding that particular aspect of her psyche problematic, but he needs to suck it up and tell her the truth. Instead, he quashes his emotional objections and tells her that they should get married, and she asks him if they can wait. So, they spend a few months sort of pseudo-engaged.

They do have sex during this time period, over the course of a week or so when they take a vacation together, and their love-making is part of the reason that Paul ends up calling the whole thing off. He wants her, but it's clear to him when they have sex that she doesn't want him back; she's just putting up with it because she feels it's her duty, and she's clearly not enjoying it. (I still say he's kind of a jerk for leading her on, but I can't say I blame him for wanting out of the relationship.) A while later, then, he concludes that he just can't marry her, and breaks it off. She is, of course, hurt and betrayed, but because she has virtually no will of her own, still wants to be friends. He somehow feels wronged and cheated by her, so he says they really shouldn't spend time together, for propriety's sake, but I think he really just wants to be shut of her.

Shortly thereafter, Paul takes up with Clara again, regardless of the fact that she's married, and starts spending a lot of time with her. They walk about the countryside and engage in various levels of debauchery, but mostly just make out a little and have nice dates. They're clearly falling in love, but are both aware of the impropriety of the situation. Paul's mother actually likes Clara, which I'm going to attribute to her being mostly unavailable, but worries about the reputation that the relationship might give her son. One evening, Paul takes Clara to the theatre, and they get back so late that he has to spend the night at her house. He meets her mother, who's a bit on the shrewish side, and then goes off to bed in a the guest room. Later, though, he gets up and goes to Clara's room, where they gaze on their mutual nakedness and fondle and caress each other, but don't actually have sex. (It's a very sexy scene, though, and I'm sure was one of the "expurgated" bits.) A few days later, Paul's at the local pub when Clara's estranged husband, Baxter Dawes, comes in and accuses him of doing...well, pretty much exactly what he's doing. Paul throws a beer in his face, and....that's right where I stopped. Cliffhanger!

I'm hoping there'll be a bar fight, but if there is, I wouldn't put it past D. H. Lawrence to have Paul accidentally kill his rival and the whole thing end in tragedy. Just saying.

The psychological stuff that D. H. Lawrence is doing with sex and guilt is very critical of the social mores of the time. I'm impressed with the fact that he's both calling attention to and commenting on the fact that women have been browbeaten into thinking that sex is disgusting and terrible, and it makes the men feel, then, both guilty and cruel for wanting it, but also angry with their lovers for not wanting it. Sometimes, reading old books will make you appreciate the changes in society. I'm not saying it's perfect, but we've come a long way. For example, I am, in fact, a woman, and I like having sex. And I'm pretty sure my husband appreciates that. Ahem. (See it get meta, here, though? I felt obligated to put in that little "ahem," to indicate a sense of propriety. Otherwise, saying "I like having sex," in a public forum might have been too forward. Which is just ridiculous.)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Blue in the face?

Current book: Sons and Lovers
Pages read: Not enough to remark upon

You didn't hold your breath, did you?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Caveat lector

Current book: Sons and Lovers
Pages read: Not enough to remark upon

Today I was somewhat better, but I still didn't read. Look, D. H. Lawrence really requires full command of the mental faculties, and I just wasn't up to it. Maybe tomorrow, but I wouldn't go holding my breath or anything. Because I know you're out there, readers, holding your breaths. If you die, don't come running to me.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Plague III: Revenge of the Plague

Current book: Sons and Lovers
Pages read: Not enough to remark upon

Yep. Sick again.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Plague II: The Plague Continues

Current book: Sons and Lovers
Pages read: Not enough to remark upon

Still sick.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Current book: Sons and Lovers
Pages read: Not enough to remark upon

Sick today.

Friday, February 12, 2010

They call it "the brush off".

Current book: Sons and Lovers
Pages read: Not enough to remark upon

I didn't really read enough pages to write about what happened in them, so I'm begging off. Complaints will be carefully reviewed by our customer service representatives and answered within the next fiscal year.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Apron strings

Current book: Sons and Lovers
Pages read: 206 - 290

God, Paul is a dick to Miriam. It's kind of out of control. He's got this whole self-loathing thing going on when he's with her, because, according to him, she makes him all serious and contemplative and spiritual and he doesn't want to be. She, in turn, just loves him and likes to spend time with him, and can't help it that she seems to him to always be serious, even when she's laughing. They still spend lots of time together, though it's a little difficult to see why. Paul's mother continues to hate Miriam, and works hard to exert her influence over Paul and get him to break things off with her. The problem is, there aren't really any things to break off, since the two staunchly maintain a platonic relationship. That said, though, Mrs. Morel manages to convince Paul that he's doing them both a disservice by spending so much time with Miriam, since it looks as if they're engaged, and consequently, they should either actually get engaged or free themselves for actual liaisons. So Paul tells Miriam this, and they both agree they shouldn't get married, since he's unable to restrain his self-hatred around her, and she worries that to love him would prove her essential unchastity. (Whatever. God, I hate chastity. Have I mentioned that? The idea that a woman's worth is determined by her intact hymen is a real issue for me.)

Afterward, they continue to be pseudo-friends, somehow, since Paul is friends with Miriam's family as well as with Miriam herself. Miriam introduces him to a woman named Clara, who's quite the man-hater, and is always arguing with him about the fact that a woman can and should be independent, and does not, in fact, need to get married. This has the predictable result of making him want to subdue her by marrying her, so he's pretty much pursuing her doggedly at this point.

Paul's relationship with his mother gets creepier by the page, so I'd like to quote a particularly illustrative section to give you an idea of what's going on:
"Instinctively, he realized he was life to her. And after all she was the chief thing to him, the only supreme thing...As he stooped to kiss his mother, she threw her arms round his neck, hid her face on his shoulder, and cried, in a whimpering voice so unlike her own that he writhed in agony:
'I can't bear it. I could let another woman - but not her - she'd leave me no room, not a bit of room - '
And immediately he hated Miriam bitterly.
'And I've never - you know, Paul - I've never had a husband - not really -"
He stroked his mother's hair, and his mouth was on her throat.
'And she so exults in taking you from me - she's not like ordinary girls."
'Well, I don't love her, mother,' he murmured, bowing his head and hiding his eyes on her shoulder in misery. His mother kissed him a long, fervent kiss." (251-252)
Are you with me here? Mrs. Morel is messed up. "I've never had a husband, so don't marry the girl you're clearly in love with, because she'll make you abandon me?" How's that inappropriate attachment to your child going? Living vicariously through his youth? Both good? Awesome.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A young man's fancy

Current book: Sons and Lovers
Pages read: 168 - 206

Not a lot of reading went on, I must admit, but I did find out that I don't have tuberculosis. I didn't think I did or anything, but just in case you were wondering. It's not relevant except that tuberculosis often finds its way into novels that are considered literary. Seriously, people are always going off and dying of it. That or taking the prairie cure.

Predictably, Gertrude flips out after William snuffs it, and is depressed and ridiculous for way too long. I mean, sure, it's her son; she should be sad. But she shouldn't sit around and brood for six months, staring off into space from her rocking chair. What finally pulls her out of it is the fact that Paul comes down with pneumonia, just like William, and she's got to nurse him back to health. (In other words, she simply transfers her unhealthy obsession from one son to the other.)

Paul gets better and begins to spend lots of time with Miriam, doing scandalous things like teaching her algebra and wandering through the fields looking at flowers. Gertrude doesn't like Miriam, but it's totally just because she's jealous of Paul's spending time with her, and not for any good reason. Miriam clearly appreciates Paul's ability to observe and describe beauty, and she, too, has an appreciation for both the finer things in life and the impulse to express one's interest in them. They're currently gadding about the countryside at Eastertime with a party of other young people, visiting castles and mountains and woods all in bloom and filled with life. Yes, yes, it's a metaphor for young love, virginal lust, and I'm sure, eventually, will turn to the problem of sex and chastity, but for now it's just full of pretty descriptions of England in the spring. Surrounded by a couple feet of accumulated snow, as I am, it's making me rather wistful.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Gregory, o' my word, we'll not carry coals.

Current book: Sons and Lovers
Pages read: 9 - 168

My edition of Sons and Lovers takes a great deal of care to point out the fact that it's the "unexpurgated text." It is, apparently, nearly 80 pages of pure sex longer than the first edition. I've got to say, I don't think any of those 80 pages were in the first 168, or if they were, man, was 1913 a prudish year. (Unexpurgated seems a little tortured of a term for this edition, also. I mean, I see what we're saying - there's a difference between editing and censoring material that might be offensive, and this is edited, not censored - but still.)

Mrs. Gertrude Morel (Clearly, D. H. Lawrence has not gotten over his "I will give all my women horrible names" issue. Remember Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen? I sure as hell do.) is the wife of coal miner (or collier, which they're often called in this book, and never ceases to remind me of Act I, scene i of Romeo and Juliet) Walter Morel, an abusive drunkard who whines a lot and isn't a very good coal miner. They have four children (well, over the course of the first part of the book they go from two to four, actually): William, Annie, Paul, and Arthur. The family lives in one of the company-owned row houses where most of the miners' families reside, and they alternate between poverty and lower-middle class existence based on the demand for coal and how much Walter decides to drink every week. Mrs. Morel and Walter fight constantly, as she is an educated, book-reading teetotaller, and he is an ignorant, lazy drunk. Lawrence relates the story of how they "fell in love" and got married by explaining that Gertrude was under the impression that he was a property-owning, upright young man who was out for one of his very occasional social evenings when the two met, but, in reality, he was a debtor who often drank and danced and happened to be particularly taken with her that evening. Walter, of course, failed to relate these details until several months after their marriage. Anyway, they clearly hate each other, and they stay together because that's what you do in 1913 rural England.

It takes a lot of setup to get us to an understanding of the economic situation the family is in, as well as the abuse and drunkenness, so that background information accounts for a lot of these pages, but finally, the children, especially William and Paul, become the center of the plot. William is quite intelligent, and comports himself well enough in school to get the attention of the masters, earning himself further education. He ends up with a local clerkship and then a London clerkship, and he and the rest of the family are all excited about the money and success he'll be garnering for himself off in the big city. Mrs. Morel, however, has always had a very close relationship with him, and is sadder to see him go than she is happy for his success (which is the mark of bad parent, actually, when you think about it). This is where the Sons and Lovers bit comes in; Mrs. Morel clearly has a relationship with her sons that puts the burden of her emotional needs squarely on them. Her husband has failed to provide her the partnership and support that a marital relationship requires, so she has transferred those requirements to her male offspring. No, Lawrence isn't saying that they're incestuous, but he makes it clear from her involvement in their lives and her emotional campaign to assure that they're completely alienated from their father that the relationship is far from healthy. Don't get me wrong; Walter Morel is clearly terrible, and we pretty much hate him, but there has to be a better way.

Anyway, Paul, once William has gone off to London, takes on the burden of both his mother's emotional needs and providing financially for the family. Walter is still making a salary, but the Morels had come to rely on William's extra income, and now need something more. Since Paul has finished school, it's the perfect impetus for him to get a job. He finds one working for a stocking manufacturer a short train ride away, and soon settles in there fairly happily, though the long hours and sedentary nature of the work (as a clerk who copies and translates letters with orders for stockings) are making him pale and tired.

Meanwhile, in London, William gads about with the social set, spending lots of money, and eventually engages himself to a girl named Lily, who clearly just wants him to buy her dresses and jewelry. Gertrude hates her, predictably, and she is kind of awful when she comes to visit the Morels, treating them all like they're inferior to her and using Annie, William's younger sister, as a virtual servant. The engagement lasts a long time, since William is waiting until he has enough money to actually get married but keeps spending it on Lily. The longer the months drag on, though, the more William begins to regret his decision. Finally, in the midst of trying to decide whether or not to break it off, he comes down with pneumonia and dies of what I'm going to go ahead and call apoplexy, because I can. Paul goes to get his father from the mine and tell him the news so that he can go to conclude William's affairs in London. And that's where we are.

The characterization is the most interesting part of this novel. Gertrude is always called Mrs. Morel, which, though it can be dismissed as the parlance of the time and place, also might serve to represent the fact that she has no choice but to be defined by her marriage. She's odd; she has intellectual values and clear class superiority to her husband, but also a pinchpenny streak and, of course, her over-devotion to her children. Then there's William, who's something of a cad and a bounder, dating lots of girls until he settles down, but who's also highly intelligent and a very hard worker. Paul is a different animal altogether - he's so sensitive to real or imagined slights that he sometimes has difficulty functioning in his surroundings, and he prefers beauty and delicacy to nearly anything else. He has an artistic streak, and dreams of becoming successful enough that he one day has time to paint. The devotion on Gertrude's part goes both ways with Paul - he has promised never to get married, but rather stay with his mother forever. (I swear there hasn't been any incest. Yet.) It's looking like Paul might soon break that promise, however, since he and his mother, not long before William's death, visited a farm owned by some fellow parishioners in their church, and he was clearly taken with the family's daughter, Miriam. Point being, each of these characters is complex, and their traits don't necessarily agree with each other; Lawrence is quite successful at creating ambiguity of character, which is one of my personal markers of true literary talent.

Somehow, despite the fact that I strongly dislike reading about families struggling through poverty, especially with abusive, alcoholic patriarchs, I quite like this novel. Lawrence is just such a good writer, particularly for his period, that I find myself able to look beyond the basic drudgery of the plot and understand the nuances and insights that he's worked so hard to develop. Go, Lawrence.

In upcoming-books-news, it looks like I'm going to have to buy a copy of Orlando, because the Saint Paul library apparently doesn't think it's an important enough novel to have more than one copy of, and the one that they do have is in large print and is consigned to the Bookmobile. Seriously, Saint Paul library, one copy in a system that serves 290,000 people? When did Virginia Woolf stop being one of the most important female writers in English? Did I miss the memo? (You want to know how many copies of The Da Vinci Code they have? Nine. Not counting the eight audio books and the electronic resource copy.)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Fruit of the poisonous tree

Current book: Bonfire of the Vanities
Pages read: 421 - 659 (end)

I read over the weekend and didn't update about it, I must admit. I also already started the next book, but don't intend to discuss it until tomorrow's post. I am unashamed!

Wolfe does a strange thing with his characterization when Sherman gets arrested. Previous to this point, he's been pretty unlikeable, what with cheating on his wife and being stuck-up and semi-racist. But as soon as he gets arrested, he becomes this incredibly sympathetic character. Wolfe makes a point of standing him outside in the rain, subjecting him to near assault by the press, sticking him in a dirty cell with abusive criminals, and generally transforming him into a pathetic figure. It's an interesting turnaround, and I'm a little unsure what to make of it, frankly, but there you go.

Anyway, Sherman goes through the whole ordeal of being arrested and arraigned, and then gets released on bail and proceeds toward a trial. His life is pretty much a circus at this point, since the black community is calling for his blood and there are protesters constantly surrounding his Park Avenue apartment. His wife and daughter have left, of course, so he's pretty much just sitting about with his lawyer and his bodyguards, trying not to give in to suicidal tendencies. Maria is apparently off in Italy somewhere, avoiding the whole thing by sleeping with someone else entirely (meaning neither her husband nor her steady lover), and Sherman and his lawyer, Killian, spend a lot of time and effort trying to track her down to no great effect. Fallow takes Arthur Ruskin, Maria's sugar-daddy old husband, out to dinner to interview him on the subject of Maria, but the old tycoon dies of a heart attack before he can complete the interview. This prompts a funeral, of course, and Maria shows up so that she can get her proper due, being the bereaved and inheriting widow. Sherman tries, at the funeral and afterward, to get her to incriminate herself in conversation with him while he's wearing a wire, but he's unsuccessful.

Shortly thereafter, Sherman's indicted by a grand jury. There's a bail hearing the next day, but before that Killian discovers that Maria's landlord placed a voice-activated tape recorder in the apartment that Sherman and Maria used to use for don't actually know the word venue? Anyway, the point is that there's a recording of her admitting that she did the driving, but it's inadmissible unless one of the participants of the conversation made said recording. So, Killian and Sherman lie about it, of course, and convince the judge at the bail hearing to throw out the grand jury indictment. Kramer, the ADA, is livid, as is the black community, led on by Reverend Bacon, but nothing, it seems, comes of that lividity.

This, however, is where the story proper ends, and all we're given by way of resolution is a newspaper article published a year later. The article informs us that Sherman spends the year subsequent to the events of the book fighting (and losing) a civil suit brought by Henry Lamb's mother, generally fending off the press, and being hounded by litigators and protesters alike, that Kramer has been ruined by the discovery of his affair with Shelly Thomas, and that Peter Fallow won a Pulitzer for his coverage of Sherman's case. And that's the end.

Weirdly inconclusive, that ending. I was sort of annoyed at first, but upon consideration, I think it's fair to say that Wolfe is accomplishing his goal of illustrating the vicissitudes of New York existence, especially through the intersection of the high and low classes. There is no nice, neat outcome. There is no message to be taken away wrapped in a pretty moral. It's simply that there are a lot of problems, on the side of the high class and on the side of the low class, that combine to make a city that can be easily torn apart by even the most insignificant of conflicts. The judicial system is a nest of favoritism and pandering, and racism is not only prevalent, but, in fact, ubiquitous. Also, people cheat on their spouses too much.

It was an incisive novel, and I think it did something pretty new in literature, although less in terms of technique or storytelling and more in terms of addressing the problems of a new age. It was not unlike Fitzgerald in the way it tried hard to point out the problems with the modern leisure class, actually; it's just that Fitzgerald's modern is 1920 and Wolfe's modern is 1985. Is it worthy of the list? Hard to say. I'd call it a borderline yes, but I may, at some point, rescind that statement. I hope no one's recording this.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Feel the burn.

Current book: Bonfire of the Vanities
Pages read: 351 - 421

Sherman definitely screwed himself over by acting guilty as hell when the cops came to see him, as we find out when the main investigators in the case report back to Kramer. Sherman was clearly nervous enough that Kramer wants to scrutinize him further, but the cops are a little stalled because of the lack of actual evidence.

Sherman is spooked enough by things to go to see the criminal lawyer that his family lawyer recommended to him back at the first meeting. The criminal lawyer, Tom Killian, is apparently well established in the New York City court system, and is owed a few favors by some of the ADAs, cops, and judges that he's worked with, which is lucky for Sherman, seeing as the populace of the city is baying for his blood. We don't know what's going on with Maria, because she won't answer Sherman's phone calls, but it seems likely that she's either hired her own lawyer and changed her story to put the blame on Sherman, or that's she's fled at least the state, if not the country.

Kramer gets a call out of blue from another ADA that there's a witness who wants to make a deal in exchange for testimony about Henry Lamb's murder. When they have the meeting with this witness, he tells a story that we, the readers, know is mainly cock-and-bull, though the truth in it is enough to corroborate the evidence they have so far about Sherman and Maria's actions. He basically says that Sherman just came out of nowhere and hit Henry, saw that he was injured, and then took off, when what really happened was far more complicated, although still not Henry's fault in any way. Regardless, the DA, Abe Weiss, gives the OK for Sherman to be arrested and formally charged, and it's only the fact that his lawyer is a friend of one of the ADAs that he doesn't get arrested, publicly and embarrassingly, at home. So, Sherman's arrest is imminent and it seems he's going to be made an example of, since Maria remains missing and Reverend Bacon continues to try to lead the black community in a crusade against racially-based judicial inequality.

So, a couple of things about the narration - first, Sherman spends a lot of mental time and energy mocking the speech patterns of the people around him, including his wife, his lawyer, and some of his friends. He often echoes things people say (just in his head, for his own personal criticism and entertainment), playing up their ignorant-sounding accents and their lapses in grammar. Far be it from me to object to criticizing grammar, but he's got a real high-horse thing about even slurring syllables or leaving out the occasional "the" or "of". It makes him seem like a complete asshole to the reader, which I'm sure was an intentional choice on Wolfe's part; he is a complete asshole, after all.

Second, Wolfe's got some kind of chip on his shoulder about people who exercise. Sherman's wife, Judy, definitely gets subjected to some critical narration for avoiding alcohol due to its calorie content and also for having breasts that have been rendered flat from too much exercise. I sort of thought it was a little good old-fashioned misogynism coming out at first, but we just met a new bond trader, and Wolfe described him as having "the haunted and gaunt athletic look of those who stare daily down the bony gullet of the great god Aerobics,"(416). Jeez, Wolfe. Lay off the fitness-bashing. (Really, Wolfe is offering some nice satirical commentary on the need for forced, artificial exercise that has arisen from the privileged and superficial lifestyle in which the moneyed class in the new American economy indulges. So maybe I'm only annoyed because it hits too close to home. Well played, Mr. Wolfe. Well played.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The police, who investigate crimes

Current book: Bonfire of the Vanities
Pages read: 221 - 351

Well, Peter Fallow successfully makes the hit-and-run into a news story, backed by the strident attention-mongering of Reverend Bacon, and Sherman, seeing the articles about it in the papers, pretty much freaks out. He talks to Maria about it, but she urges him to keep his cool - so far, there's no real evidence against the two of them specifically. The cops have a make and colour of car, and one-and-a-half license plate letters, and that's all. Sherman wants to go to the authorities and explain, but Maria, who was the one driving at the time of the hit-and-run, says it's her decision to make, not his.

Our ambitious young DA, Kramer, gets together with the Girl with Brown Lipstick and begins making the overtures to an affair with her. (It's less sketchy than it could be, seeing as the case that she was a juror for is over, but it's still a bit unethical, and definitely immoral.) It's clear that she's interested in him, though it remains to be seen whether she's aware that he's married and has an infant son. On the professional front, Kramer has been saddled with the Henry Lamb case and is growing increasingly exasperated about the media attention it's getting, especially since their leads aren't particularly good, but he dutifully sends out investigators to check on every black Mercedes with the appropriate license plate numbers. That, of course, means that the investigators eventually pay a visit to Sherman.

Sherman, in the meantime, goes to see a lawyer, who tells him he might want to keep quiet about the accident, seeing as it's likely that Maria will turn on him and say he was driving if he goes to the cops. When the cops show up, therefore, he's immediately stricken with the desire to tell the truth, but instead keeps mum about it and just acts absurdly guilty: he won't let them see the car and he's extremely agitated during the interview. (Now, far be it from me to agree with the idea that the innocent have nothing to fear, but man. If he'd just showed them the car and been normal for five seconds, they would have gone away and never suspected a thing. Instead, my guess is they're coming back. With a warrant. It's not going to be pretty.)

The whole situation has distracted Sherman at work to the extent that he's lost millions of dollars worth of bond-trading deals, so he's also preoccupied about losing his job and certainly his reputation. In this state, and just after the interview with the police, Sherman and Judy attend a dinner party at which, in a nasty shock for Sherman, Maria and her husband are also present. (I wasn't aware, until this point, that Maria was married. Clearly my interpretation of her as a low-class single woman was incorrect. She's actually a low-class golddigger who's become a wealthy trophy wife. My bad.) Through a stroke of ill fortune, Maria and Sherman are seated next to each other at dinner, and he haltingly tells her about the police visit. She maintains her position that they should keep quiet, since, even though he's a complete fuckup, the cops haven't actually got any evidence about the situation yet.

That's about where we are. We've also met Sherman's parents, who are WASPs of the very oldest school, and gotten an idea of the social pressure he's under to maintain appearances, both of wealth and propriety.

The plot, as they say, is clearly thickening. I'm highly entertained for most of it, although I hate Peter Fallow and his alcoholic fog. The narration is obnoxious when it's his turn to be in the spotlight because of the fact that Wolfe thinks it's a good idea to represent his need for alcohol with delirious mental exclamations that interrupt the flow of the narrative. As in the quote below:
"The paper, which was Xeroxed - Xeroxed! Radium-blue! The snout! - bore the letterhead of the American People's Alliance." (292)
See? "The snout!"? What does that even mean? This is not an effective technique. It is also freaking annoying. I'd much rather have something like, "The paper, which was Xeroxed, made him think of the bright light of the copy machine, radium-blue like the headache that pounded behind his eyes and roared for another drink. The sheet bore the letterhead of the American People's Alliance." Or something. I'm not saying I'm as good as Tom Wolfe, I'm just saying that interrupting the narrative with thought-italics is both chintzy and disruptive. (This from the girl with the parentheses fetish.)

But mostly I like it, despite my whining.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

For emphasis!

Current book: Bonfire of the Vanities
Pages read: 212 - 221

I read nine whole pages! Nothing really happened! Fallow is investigating the car accident by calling people and Kramer heard about it! More exclamation points make my post more interesting!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Two separate, yet equally important groups

Current book: Bonfire of the Vanities
Pages read: 107 - 212

Well, as I suspected, Sherman and Maria's little accident is about to be scrutinized by the police. The kid they hit, whose name is Henry Lamb, is in a coma in the hospital, and his mother has enlisted a prominent member of the Harlem community, Reverend Bacon (who's definitely a leader and for many, a positive force, but also seems to have some investments that are not entirely on the up-and-up), to pressure the police and the DA to investigate properly. There are, of course, all kinds of accusations about racism and favoritism being thrown around, and it seems likely that there's some being displayed, actually, since the police are hedging on pursuing the case, regardless of the fact that they have a partial license plate number.

While this stuff is happening, we're introduced to Peter Fallow, a reporter for one of the New York newspapers, who is a transplanted Brit and has some serious contempt for the American populace. He's also a raging alcoholic desperately trying to cling to his job. He's about to increase his chances of keeping it by breaking the story of Henry Lamb and Sherman Marshall and the corruption and racism of the police and government, it seems, since he's just gotten a lucky tip about the situation.

In addition to this, Lawrence Kramer, the ADA from yesterday (Blog yesterday, not book yesterday. Although they might be the same, come to think of it. But your timeline, dear readers, is dictated by my whims anyway, so you have no choice in the matter! Mine is an evil laugh!), has just concluded his prosecution of a man named Herbert 92X (it's an adopted Islamic name, apparently, which doesn't sound like any Islamic name I've ever heard of, but there you go). The case itself isn't that important, but Kramer has worked himself up to a deep infatuation with one of the jury members, Shelly Thomas, to whom he refers as "the girl with brown lipstick."

It's definitely still engaging. As I said before, I think the commentary on the racial situation in 1980s New York is pertinent and interesting, and is, sadly, still far too pertinent more than twenty years later. Yes, we've made progress: we have a black man in the highest office in the nation. And yet, for a young black man in Henry Lamb's situation, have the odds of getting justice for a crime perpetrated against him by an affluent white man really improved? Maybe. Have the odds of getting justice for a crime perpetrated against him by another black man of his socioeconomic status improved? An even less definite maybe. But I like that Wolfe is making me think about the issue. That's definitely worth points in my estimation.

Man, also, can I just say, the anti-Semitism in the novel is kind of a shock to me? I don't even think about anti-Semitism being an issue, so the constant references to people being Jewish as a reason not to trust them or to make fun of them or what have you are really jarring. (I wish I could say the same of all the racism, come to think of it. ) Is it an 80s thing? Is it a New York thing? Is it both?

Monday, February 1, 2010

The upward surge of mankind

Current book: Bonfire of the Vanities
Pages read: 3 - 107

Before I start talking about Tom Wolfe, I'm going to throw out a call for readership. If you know somebody who you think might be interested in this blog, send them a link, huh? Not because I'm vain and want to be read, but...well, mostly because I'm vain and want to be read. Ok, that's done.

So, Tom Wolfe, as it turns out, is definitely not the same person as Thomas Wolfe, who wrote Look Homeward, Angel, which, as you may remember, I read last year. I don't know why I was under that impression (Well, ok, aside from the fact that their names are almost exactly the same - that does count for something.), but it makes a lot more sense that they aren't the same person, what with Look Homeward, Angel having been published in 1929, and this book in 1987. It would have been impressive as hell if it had been the same guy, though.

Anyway. This book is significantly more modern, and so far seems to consist largely of a critique of the social structure and inflated economy of 1980s New York. It sort of reminds me of the movie Greed, only more artful and without Charlie Sheen. That may have been redundant. (Though if you'd like to imagine Charlie Sheen into one of the roles, I say go for it.) Our main character, though I think he's going to more of a villain than a protagonist, is Sherman McCoy, an investment banker who works on Wall Street and is deeply in debt for his Manhattan apartment, though, of course, he also makes an absurd amount of money that he spends unwisely on things like his $48,000 Mercedes. (It's not like he's getting calls from the collection agency, is the point, though he's also not fiscally responsible.) Sherman's married to Judy, but cheats on her with Maria, an uneducated and much poorer woman of whom he clearly gets to feel in control when he's with her. (He's got a whole inadequacy issue. Surprised?) Sherman and Judy have a young daughter, Campbell, who Sherman seems to actually like, though he doesn't want to spend time with her if he can possibly avoid it. So, we've got the McCoys' unhappy marriage and Sherman's affair laid out as a backdrop for the rest of the story, but before we get going, we need to get acquainted with a few other people.

One of the other main characters is Lawrence Kramer, an Assistant District Attorney in the Bronx, who went to Columbia law and is, rather nobly, serving the city of New York rather than a private firm. He and his wife, Rhoda, have recently had their first child, Joshua, and are living in the best apartment they can afford on Manhattan, which is, of course, a hellhole. (Because real estate in Manhattan is insane. Seriously. I don't mean to sound like a crazy cosmopolite here (Look, you just don't get to use that word very often. Let me have my fun.), but for real, guys. When I attended my one ill-starred semester at NYU, I lived in student housing on Manhattan, and it was ridiculous. For a bedroom in a shared two-bedroom apartment that consisted of the two aforementioned bedrooms, a bathroom, and a tiny kitchen - no other living space of any kind - I paid $1400 a month. $1400. Christ. In. Heaven.)

We've also got a the mayor of New York, who's in hot water with the black community, and serves less as a character and more to introduce the idea of racial tension in the city. This is, we must remember, before Giuliani and the dramatic drop in crime rates, when parts of the city were virtual no-man's-lands. The worst areas were the largely minority neighborhoods, and the white officials of the city seemed ok with insulating themselves in the pockets of relative wealth and safety that comprised most of Manhattan. So, there was a lot of ill feeling among many groups, and we get a strong sense of that in this novel. There's racism across the board, really, but it could be broken down into categories, if you tried pretty hard: white against black and Hispanic, black against Jewish, Irish and Italian against Jewish, and Jewish against, well, everybody else. Point being, everybody hates each other. (And more than that, really, fears each other. Which is pretty much where this always comes from, isn't it?)

So. Now that the background is properly established, we get a day at Sherman's firm, during which he makes tons of money and feels like the king of the world. Afterward, he tells his wife he has to work late, and instead goes to pick his mistress, Maria, up from the airport and engage in some good old-fashioned adultery. (Because that's what you do when you feel good about yourself. Cheat on your wife. Christ. Note to self: good job marrying an ethical and upright man so you don't have to worry about this kind of thing.) Sherman and Maria, heading back to Manhattan in the Mercedes, take a wrong turn and end up in the Bronx, pit of sin and criminal behavior (Sherman's impression, obviously), and start to panic. They end up trying to go up a disused on-ramp to get back to the highway, but there's some debris on the road that's in their way. Sherman gets out of the car to clear a path, and a black man and his son ask him if he needs any help. Sherman reads the statement as a veiled threat (and wow, is it not one) and throws some of the debris (a tire) at the man, after which there's a confused jumble of movement and shouting, and Maria ends up getting into the driver's seat, picking Sherman up in the car, and hitting one of the two men, probably the son, on her way back to the freeway. Both of them are scared, but also in strident denial of the events, and they congratulate each other on their mutual bravery, worry a little about the hit-and-run, and then vow to forget it and count it a lucky escape. Also, then they have sex. Of course.

Afterward, we cut back to Lawrence Kramer at the DA's office, and it's clear that he's about to get this case dumped in his lap. The young man who Sherman and Maria hit with the car has called the DA's office to make a complaint. And that's where we are.

I'm really enjoying it, regardless of the fact that at first I thought it was going to be mostly violence and swearing. I mean, you know, there is violence and swearing, but Wolfe uses it pretty convincingly. He succeeds in both creating an accurate picture of 1980s New York and in offering insightful social commentary about it. I'm impressed by how easily he gets you to slip into Sherman's way of thinking about race, but then throws it back in your face by giving you different views of racism through the eyes of other immigrant groups (Jewish, Italian, and Irish). One way or another, you'll get the message that everyone's been part of the disenfranchised, the marginalized, or the oppressed, and just because it's not your turn anymore doesn't mean you can pretend it's not important. Clearly, this is coming from my white perspective, but I think it'd work no matter what race you identify with, because he covers a lot of groups fairly equally. It's early; I could be wrong, but I think that's where we're going. Also, we're clearly going to get an investigation and trial narrative. I'm not much for legal drama, but when it's well written, it can be pretty engaging. So, regardless of the fact that this book's really long, I'm quite looking forward to the rest. I might even read it when I'm not working out. The audacity!


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