Tuesday, August 31, 2010

All the news that's fit to print

Current book: The Fountainhead
Pages read: 525 - 620

Well, Wynand is basically being redeemed by Dominique through their marriage and his recognition of her high ideals. As a result, he decides to build a house for her and gets Roark to design it, without letting Dominique know. When Wynand tells her his plans, she is both delighted and shocked, and, seeing Roark again, is reminded of why she loves him. As the house progresses, Roark and Wynand become good friends, despite the fact that Wynand's paper tried to destroy Roark. Wynand soon becomes a man of principle, and begins to change the content of his previously pandering and sensationalist paper. He forces the editorial staff to write articles supportive of Roark, as well. There's a movement against him within the ranks, and it looks like it'll come to a head at any moment.

Keating, who's been almost completely destroyed by the loss of Dominique and his own lack of talent, comes to Roark and begs him to design a new set of public housing projects for him. Roark agrees, but only on the principle that he's doing it so that the buildings will be right, and because it will benefit him to do so. Keating finally understands that Roark's way of doing things is the "right" way, and that he's made a mess of his life by acting always for others.

The message comes off so much better in this book than Atlas Shrugged. The individualist take works really well for art. It still doesn't necessarily work for me economically, but the idea of standing on your own principles when you lead your life is one I can relate to. (I've tried to do it myself, actually, but it mostly seems to result in quitting jobs that I can't stand because they go against my nature and character. It doesn't seem quite as noble in those circumstances.) Anyway, point being, despite my prejudices, Rand is making her points fairly convincingly in this book. I still refuse to extrapolate them to their political and economic extremes, but that doesn't mean they're without merit. Let's see how it turns out.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The discovery and defense of the new

Current book: The Fountainhead
Pages read: 433 - 525

Keating finds himself unhappy with Dominique as his wife because she plays the perfect model wife but never expresses an opinion. After a while, Wynand, the amoral newspaper magnate, marries Dominique, securing Keating's assent with a huge architectural contract. Keating is pretty much destroyed by the fact that he realizes that he's achieved all his goals and dreams and is still miserable.

Wynand loves Dominique because of the fact that she won't bow to the illnesses of society, but, though she comes to respect him more and more, she doesn't love him back. He's still in charge of the papers that give Toohey and his ilk their voices, after all. Toohey's making plans to take over Wynand's major paper, as well, which Dominique sees through and warns Wynand about. He doesn't listen. We haven't heard much from Roark; he's building small-scale stuff out in the country.

This bit is mostly about Dominique continuing to punish herself by trying to quash her self-love and make herself as miserable and unworthy as everyone else. It's not working. That's really all. Not a great deal of development here. Rand is emphasizing the uselessness and even malice of critics, though, by pointing to them as leeches that not only never create, but poison those on whom they feed by choosing the most conformist and jingoistic works to celebrate as art. While that's sometimes true, it misses the fact that sometimes critics are the champions of the new and experimental. There is room for the critic as paragon of integrity, too - but, of course, that would defeat Rand's point.

I should finish in a couple of days and be able to provide a more comprehensive assessment.

Friday, August 27, 2010

I am a baker, and this is my manifesto.

Current book: The Fountainhead
Pages read: None

I was too busy baking bread and making pie dough to read or really post today. Bread is delicious. I will build visionary architecture made of bread. The people may not understand me, but my bread will stand as a monument forever.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

I'm good enough, I'm smart enough...

Current book: The Fountainhead
Pages read: 320 - 433

Roark continues to get commissions, despite Dominique and Toohey's best efforts to stand in his way. Unfortunately, his commissions go badly; the large hotel he designs runs out of funding, partially finished, and the "Temple to the Spirit" he designs is a disaster. He's set up for that disaster by Toohey, who tells the building's sponsor to give Roark complete freedom and not even to look at the designs. The sponsor tells Roark that he wants a non-denominational cathedral, and what Roark gives him is a building that honors the spirit of humankind, elevating man to the level of God. Dominique poses for the naked human statue at the temple's focal point.

The sponsor sues Roark for gross malpractice and wins. Dominique testifies on the sponsor's behalf, but says, basically, that the reason Roark should lose the suit is because his temple was wrong to glorify man when he is, in actuality, so despicable as to sue a visionary for his genius. Afterward, she agrees to marry Peter Keating, and Roark lets her, though he promises her she will one day come back to him when she has learned to value herself. The temple is transformed into a home for "subnormal" children and redesigned. Keating snubs his fiance for Dominique.

Moving on, we begin to learn the history of Gail Wynand, newspaper magnate that owns the newspaper Dominique wrote for before she married Keating, who is a foil for Roark. He makes every decision to prove the futility of living to an ideal, playing the public's baser instincts against it to take advantage of it for his own gain. That's as far as I got with him.

I was wrong about Dominique's motives. Well, that's not actually true; I had thought of the proper interpretation, but I forgot to make a note of it in yesterday's short post. The real reason she's sabotaging commissions for Roark seems to be that she finds society so bankrupt of merit that she can't stand to see it criticizing Roark's genius. Not that she'd be any happier, really, if they appreciated it for the wrong reasons, but the point is that she thinks they aren't worthy of him. Roark, disagreeing with her, explains that it's not reason enough to let society break him, but rather he must simply be who he is and remain untouched by the consequences.

This book is infinitely more tolerable and subtler than Atlas Shrugged, mostly because, as I've said, it's all about artistic integrity (which can be extrapolated to other integrity, of course). That said, it's still hitting the point that genius is the only mark of human worth pretty damn hard. The "subnormal" children are a good example of that. Rand clearly has a great deal of contempt for the people who care for them. She doesn't go so far as to say they should be killed at birth, but the implication is kind of there. Do I have a perfect solution for people with mental disabilities? No, but I'm not willing to discount them entirely, either. (Maybe I'm a coward for that. Maybe I should just say, "No, their brains don't work properly and therefore they don't count." Rand would want me to.) Also, there's the idea that anyone who's not a genius has nothing to stand for, which is pretty hard to take. Or, on the flip side of that, that everyone should act as though he or she is a genius and stand on that principle all the time, which is not only unrealistic, but pretty misleading. (One might argue that that idea is a huge problem in the current generation. In fact, the New York Times recently did.)

The focus on upholding the individual's responsibility to act in his own interest is so great, too, that it negates any understanding or acknowledgement of the contribution of circumstance to the problems of poverty. Almost every powerful man in the book raised himself up by his bootstraps from poverty. The implication is that the poor are poor by choice and laziness. Those who raise themselves up, however, are always improbably tenacious or intelligent or gifted, so what does that make of those who are not particularly tenacious or intelligent or gifted? Is it all right (or even feasible, really) to act in one's own best interest at all times if one is unintelligent?

I do like, though, the fact that Roark points out to Dominique that her motives are incorrect. The proper solution is not, according to Roark, to hide genius from those unworthy of criticizing it, but rather to make it public, in an uncorrupted state, and ignore the criticism. This idea is great if the art or architecture is great - if it's a shining, inspiring example. Of course, if your work is no good, it goes back to my previous complaint. But, with the examples of great downtrodden artists and writers in mind, I'll give Rand the point that genius is often unappreciated, or even actively persecuted, in its own time, and remaining immune to criticism can be both helpful and necessary in those cases.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

We Built This City

Current book: The Fountainhead
Pages read: 225 - 320

In today's installment, Roark and Dominque continue their bizarre control and loathing-fueled relationship, and Roark gets some more commissions, though Dominique tries as hard as she can to destroy his career, which she tells him she is doing. Peter becomes more and more successful, and finally meets and earns the great acclaim of Ellsworth Toohey, his theoretical father-in-law. We also learn that Toohey has always been a slimy manipulator of people, and is, basically, trying to bring all of society down to his level, since he has no real talents of his own.

I don't have a lot of patience for analysis right now, so I'll just say that the main problem when reading this part of the book is figuring out why Dominique is trying so hard to destroy Roark. She obviously admires him and his work a great deal, so there must be a reason. Since she hates dependence and the falseness of society, I'm going to interpret it as an attempt, on her part, to save Roark from the inevitable corruption that fame and success with bring him. She must be reasoning that, eventually, his success will cause him to compromise his morals (which are, in this case, only to do precisely what his artistic vision requires of him), and she can't bear to see that happen to him.

Probably? More tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The beast with two backs

Current book: The Fountainhead
Pages read: 115 -225

Plot-wise, we've got Roark quitting the firm he was working for to build a house for a rich eccentric. As a result, he sets up his own firm and gets a few commissions, but eventually goes bankrupt and gets a job quarrying stone at Francon's quarry in Connecticut. There he meets Dominique Francon, who is immediately sexually attracted to him and simultaneously repulsed by her own inclination toward human dependency. (We've also learned that Dominique considers any kind of dependence on anything or anyone absolute anathema.) They have a couple of adversarial conversations (though the hostility is veiled on both their parts) and then, eventually, violent sex. (Rape? Hard to say. Not really? The whole thing's dependent on Dominique not wanting it, but Rand says, a couple of times, that the only reason she's aroused is that Roark doesn't acknowledge her with any sort of tenderness.) Dominque never learns his name, and doesn't actually know who he is. Only a few days later, Roark returns to New York to meet with a prospective architectural client.

As far as Keating goes, he's under pressure from Catherine to marry her, and yet is fascinated with Dominique. He proposes to Dominique, actually, and she turns him down, saying that she would only ever marry him in order to punish herself. Around this time, Keating becomes a partner in the firm, having driven Heyer, the previous partner, to have a stroke by threatening him with blackmail. In addition to making partner, Keating has achieved acclaim by winning a well-known architectural contest, which he accomplished with a design that Roark edited significantly for him. After winning the contest, he visits Roark and offers him some money as compensation for his involvement in the plan, and they fight about Keating's lack of talent and Roark's unwillingness to compromise his artistic ideals. Keating decides, afterward, that he hates Roark.

This Rand novel is significantly more tolerable than Atlas Shrugged. I'm not sure why; it might be that it's about needing to assert creative freedom in order to be truly free. I respond better to the idea of creative freedom than I do the idea of economic freedom. There has been less of an emphasis on selfishness so far, as well. Although, thinking about that statement, I'm not sure Rand would agree; she would say that asserting one's creativity is a form of selfishness, since it's something you do to reach personal satisfaction. It's just that I identify a lot more with that need than I do with creating a railroad empire, as in Atlas Shrugged. Anyway, I think the story also moves along significantly better, and there's been less repetition of similar events, as well. Roark's story seems to be evolving more fluidly than Dagny Taggert's did.

The sex, though, and, in fact, Dominique in general, I'm not sure what to make of. It seems like her assertion of a complete lack of dependence is supposed to be a good thing, and yet, she seems to be making herself miserable, which, in turn, makes her happy. I can't tell if Rand is supporting that or condemning it. Clearly, she's more admirable that Keating, who is so dependent on the opinions of others and any type of external motivation that even his selfishness isn't really selfish, and yet, she's not as admirable as Roark, who is driven by his own vision of great architecture, and therefore dependent on seeing that vision realized. So, what does Dominique mean? I'm not sure. She may be an example of the idea of independence carried too far, but it seems unlikely that Rand would be portraying that message. I'm also confused about the violent sex, though it's not the first time we've seen it in Rand. Dagny Taggert seemed to have the need for violence and control in her sexual experiences as well. Is it supposed to be another example of weakness, or a statement about the character of sexual relationships for strong, dominant women? If so, is it good or bad, or is Rand simply showing it to us? I'm reluctant to say it's simply a fact and let it go at that, but what is it supposed to prove? To be part of a truly independent relationship, sex can have no emotional meaning, and, therefore, is reduced to its raw state, which is one of male dominance and female submission? I don't know, and solutions are not forthcoming.

Speaking of reducing things to their raw states, I think it's interesting, too, that Rand seems to deny the social nature of the human species. Her most admirable characters are almost completely socially inept, mostly because they refuse to compromise their values and morals for the needs of the group. (It's almost as though Roark and Dominque are autistic, actually; they simply don't think of social needs and interaction the way that other people do. It's not wrong, but is outside the normal mental spectrum.) I understand why she's saying that, and that she considers such moral integrity not only good, but necessary, but it seems hard to ignore the fact that the phenomenon of social organization itself is built on the principle of compromising for the good of the group. Is it possible to function as a society without it? I'm sure Rand would argue that it's necessary to subvert the base instincts of the social animal in order to create a better society, but, to carry Rand's idea of complete independence to its logical but absurd conclusion, a society cannot function when all its members are completely independent. It will fall apart.

You can't fault her for making you think about stuff, at least. It counts for a lot.

Monday, August 23, 2010

What happened to the soul of wit?

Current book: The Fountainhead
Pages read: 1 - 115

Hey, an actual post! It's so new and different! Too bad it's about Ayn Rand, who is not new and different.

Before I get snarky, let's do a run-down of the plot so far. Howard Roark, our hero, (who is almost completely emotionless, because emotion is clearly an ignoble weakness) gets kicked out of architecture school because he won't design Greek and Roman and Renaissance Revival style buildings, but instead only designs original Modernist architecture. (Do you get kicked out of architecture school for that? It seems like a bit of a stretch. But we'll move on.)

Peter Keating, who graduates at the same time that Roark gets kicked out, is the Golden Boy of the school, though has very little actual talent. Keating immediately gets a job at the top architecture firm in New York, Francon and Heyer, where he proceeds to manipulate people into quitting or getting fired until he's made top designer.

Roark has come to New York, too, where he starts work for a failed Modernist architect named Cameron, who recognizes his genius but warns him it will be his downfall. Eventually Cameron retires, and Keating gets Roark a job at Francon and Heyer, which he loses when he refuses to design a Renaissance-style building. He gets a job working for a new firm designing things like department stores.

We also meet Dominique Francon, Keating's boss's daughter, who hates all Revivalist architecture, and with whom Keating immediately falls in love. Unfortunately, Keating is engaged to the penniless Catherine Halsey, niece of Ellsworth Toohey, the foremost architecture critic in the country, who believes only in reproducing the great masterpieces of Classical and Renaissance architecture. That's about where we are, then: the downtrodden innovator can't catch a break, and the slimy, talentless manipulator is thriving.

Are you unsure about what the message might be? Do you need me to explain it? Do I know exactly where the following 600 pages of this book are going? You bet your lacy green knickers I do. Gee, will it be the story of genius held back by the machine of the establishment? Gee, will it be public opinion crushing the spark of creativity and rewarding the repetition of old ideas? Gee, will it espouse complete selfishness of Roark's variety as the only way to achieve any degree of freedom in society, while ignoring the fact that Keating's brand of selfishness is virtually the same thing? Gee, Ayn, I can hardly wait to find out!

Ok, I'm laying it on thick, but seriously, this is my problem with Rand. Everything's so damn ham-fisted that I know exactly what's going to happen five pages in. From the moment, on the third page, when I found out that Howard Roark got kicked out of architecture school for his innovative designs, I was like, "Oh, the point is that society and the establishment are so entrenched in their dogma that it's difficult, and sometimes even impossible, to change them, regardless of the merit of the new ideas one is interested in realizing." And now there are 700 more pages to prove that point in exhausting detail. So far, I must admit, the storytelling is a bit better than in Atlas Shrugged, but I don't doubt that I'll lose patience before it's over. We'll see if there are any 75-page speeches, I guess.

Also, when presenting a counter-argument, as I often tell my high-school-age writing students, it's a good idea to make the other side's position believable, rather than so exaggerated as to be ridiculous. Ayn Rand, apparently, didn't get the memo on that one. Here's her version of Toohey's statement about a piece of Classical Revival architecture:
"The discipline of an immortal tradition has served here as a cohesive factor in evolving a structure whose beauty can reach, simply and lucidly, the heart of every man in the street. There is no freak exhibitionism here, no perverted striving for novelty, no orgy of unbridled egotism. Guy Francon, its designer, has known how to subordinate himself to the mandatory canons which generations of craftsmen behind him have proved inviolate, and at the same time how to display his own creative originality, not in spite of, but because of the classical dogma he has accepted with the humility of a true artist. It may be worth mentioning, in passing, that dogmatic discipline is the only thing which makes true originality possible..." (41)
Dogmatic discipline is the only thing which makes true originality possible? Seriously, Rand? I know you're presenting the other side's argument in a light which you hope will make it ridiculous, but would be like to attempt to strive for realism, at least?

Did you miss the whining about Ayn Rand? I bet you did.

Friday, August 20, 2010

No, it has nothing to do with sailing. Be quiet.

Current book: None
Pages read: None

What ho, dear readers! News from the front! The Fountainhead has finally landed at the branch library, and your correspondent on the high seas will set off to collect it tomorrow! Keep a weather eye, mateys!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bored now.

Current book: None
Pages read: None

Still no book. This is taking forever. Sorry for the two days without posting, but waiting around isn't very exciting. The end.

Monday, August 16, 2010

...if there were enough tarragon around.

Current book: None
Pages read: None

I don't have anything exciting to say about literature in general. Instead, I'll give you an update on what I'm currently reading while we're waiting for Ayn Rand to filter through the library system.

Impatient with Desire, by Gabrielle Burton, which totally sounds like porn, is, in fact, very far from it. It's a novel about the Donner party told from Tamsin Donner's point of view. It's related in journal entries and letters, which normally isn't a trope I'm particularly fond of, but the epistolary form is narrative enough that it works in this book.

Anyway, I'm surprised to find that I'm really enjoying it. Burton does an excellent job of capturing her protagonist's voice, and an even more masterful job of spinning out the suspense about how the party got itself into its famous cannibalistic dilemma. I have not yet been bored, nor have I been frustrated with the decisions of the main character. Frankly, the only thing I've wondered about is why, after subsisting on boiled oxen hides (which I didn't even know you could eat) for several weeks, they didn't eat any of their dead sooner. I mean, I know, I know, taboos, but starving is starving, guys. Tamsin herself is strong, rational, compelling, and even, at times, inspiring. Her story is impressive in that it puts her far ahead of her time in standing up for her own rights, being an independent earner, and even confronting her husband in a public discussion. And all of this in the context of crossing the Rockies by wagon train. I recommend it.

Also, I thought the members of the Donner party were Mormons, which is completely untrue.

Friday, August 13, 2010

It was the worst of times

Current book: None
Pages read: None

So, I failed to update yesterday, but it was because I was being social. On a weeknight. So, I think it was a good excuse.

Moving on, here's a list of things I think literature is not:

1. Vulgarity for the sake of shock.

2. Complexity of syntax and language for the purpose of sounding smart. (Also known as pretension.)

3. Long-windedness. (I'm looking at you, Mr. Charles Paid-by-the-word Dickens.)

4. Political sermonizing thinly disguised with a narrative.

5. Religious sermonizing thinly disguised with a narrative.

6. A complete lack of narrative.

7. Non-fiction.

Other ideas?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

It was the best of times

Current book: None
Pages read: None

Well, as with any discussion of the definition of a difficult concept, we'll start with the dictionary. Webster's has this to say about the word literature: "writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest (2) : an example of such writing." Not bad, MW, not bad. I quite like "excellence of form or expression and...ideas of permanent or universal interest." It straddles a nice line between vague and strict, just as the dictionary should.

I'm tempted to say that my personal definition of literature has to be something that has an intellectual or emotional effect on its reader, but that's so terribly subjective. And yet, to be honest, I think it's fairly accurate for me. If I don't care about it, in one way or another, I'm unlikely to call it literature. If it catches my attention with its ideas, its beauty, or its ability to move me emotionally, I'm likely to want to call it literature even if the establishment might not.

Still, the definition is incomplete, because I can recognize that innovation also has a place in the canon, and that we have to respect some authors and works simply because they did what had never before been done. Charles Dickens, for example, is rather stultifying, and I have a lot of difficulty recognizing the worth of his work based on its artistic and emotional merit, but he wrote novels about everyday life before anyone else did. That's pretty important. (Sure, he may have been the John Grisham of the age, but he was the first John Grisham of the age. If you reach mediocrity first, you're still remarkable by virtue of novelty alone.)

Next time, I think I'll give some thought to what isn't literature. Nothing like defining by exclusion.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Socratic Method

Current book: None
Pages read: None

I don't have The Fountainhead yet because I refuse to buy it and all the copies are checked out of the library, so I have to wait. I'm guessing somebody's assigned it for summer reading, but I could be wrong; the popularity of Rand never ceases to amaze me. Hopefully, whatever idealist has it checked out will realize his folly and, consumed by bitterness, return it early. Alternatively, he could realize that checking out books from the library violates the principles of Rand's philosophy, seeing as it's a form of undermining free market economics, and, wishing to be a paragon of his new ideals, also return it early. Whatever works.

So, I'm not starting this today, but I have in mind a couple of posts for the rest of the week on what exactly the definition of literature is. Does anyone have ideas they'd like to contribute? What do you think the definition of literature is?

Monday, August 9, 2010

"Why don't you write books people can read?"*

Current book: Finnegan's Wake
Pages read: 3 - 628 (end)

Initially, I'd considered writing a paragraph in the style of this horrendous monstrosity masquerading as literature, but I couldn't bring myself to emulate, even for the purposes of showcasing its ridiculousness, the masturbatory excrescence that James Joyce created when he wrote what we shall, for the purposes of discussion, refer to as a "book."

Do you want to know what it's about? Well, so do I. As far as I can tell, nothing. It's...well, here are a couple of characteristic sentences from the first page.
Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface. The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovar-rhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.
Did you...can you...help? Help me. There is nothing to be done with this tripe. (Sheep's stomach may be too kind an epithet, actually.) I do not have time for men who sit in dark rooms and make up nonsense words, interspersing them with contrived attempts to sound, by turns, like drunken old men speaking in dialect and scholars so full of themselves that they can speak of nothing else. Was anyone paying attention when this book was published? Did anyone read it?

People do, I guess. And are, somehow, impressed by it. Granted, he spent a lot of time on it; I'll give you that. Apparently some people find it incredibly amusing, which is beyond me, and others are impressed by its complex network of allusions, but frankly, what good are allusions when they are written almost entirely for the author? The wordplay, too, gets a lot of respect, but once again, I have to protest that wordplay is only successful when it occurs as part of a nuanced whole that engages its reader, as opposed to when it makes up the bulk of a work that is nothing more than a tangled mess of etymological whims that haven't been properly sorted out. I call foul on you for this, literary world! I say that the emperor is naked! And not just a little bit light on the clothing, here. Stark, buck-ass, skinny-legged, shriveled-penis-hanging-out-for-everyone-to-see naked.

To give a sort of...summary-ish...thing...about this, it really is like 625 pages of drunken ranting. Sometimes, there are little conversations between people you don't know that also don't make sense, and there are a couple of miniature plays that are completely incomprehensible. There's a long section where he footnotes himself, mostly to preempt anyone who might actually attempt to footnote him by mocking said prospective scholar mercilessly. He mocks a lot of things, really, which is, I guess, where the amusement factor comes in for some readers (and if you find opaque rambling funny, then sure), the two most prominent of which are religion and academia. He mentions Levy-Bruhl at one point, (who is a famous anthropologist, which I know because I was an Anthropology minor in college (for no good reason, as it turns out)) which was the only moment from which I got a sense of the excitement many people feel about all the allusions, but then he subsides pretty quickly back into his normal murky quagmire.

I was excited, on page 108, to see a sentence that actually maintained grammatical integrity (and of course, it's a mockery of the idea of writing itself). This is as clear as the entire book gets, in case you're wondering.
To conclude purely negatively from the positive absence of political odia and monetary requests that its page cannot ever have been a penproduct of a man or woman of that period or those parts is only one more unlookedfor conclusion leaped at, being tantamount to inferring from the nonpresence of inverted commas (sometimes called quotation marks) on any page that its author was always constitutionally incapable of misappropriating the spoken words of others.
I know. You're amazed that I read this, aren't you? Well, as you can see from the number of pages read today, I didn't so much read it as look at all of the pages in order and read some words on each one. I gave it a fair shot, but after 50 pages of complete and utter raving insanity reminiscent more of the delusions of an educated madman than anything we might be willing to consider calling literature, I decided I would give it the amount of attention that would prevent me from becoming uncomfortably akin to its author. In other words, I skimmed the hell out of it.

I can't go on. There's really nothing more to be said, except this: you know how when you read a normal book, sometimes you skip a page and it's confusing, because the line that starts the next page doesn't fit with the line that ended the previous page, and that's how you figure out that you accidentally skipped one? Well, that doesn't happen with this book, because there's no way to tell whether one page has anything to do with the next one.

Is it worthy of the list? WHAT DO YOU FUCKING THINK?

*This is a quote from Nora Joyce, James's wife. Hah.

Friday, August 6, 2010

By accident I hit them in the stomach.

Current book: The Jungle
Pages read: 294 - 346 (end)

Wow, total failure to update yesterday. I meant to have an apologetic post about not having time, and I forgot even to do that. Well, you ought to be used to it by now. (Um...I mean...I was keeping you on your toes?)

Anyway. Jurgis gets rescued off the street by Marija (well, basically - it's complicated, but you don't need the detail), an old family friend, who, as it turns out, is working as a prostitute. She manages to support a family that way, though, so at this point, who is Jurgis to judge? (She's also addicted to morphine, which many of the whorehouses feed to their employees to keep them docile and trapped. Lovely.) Marija makes sure Jurgis gets fed and tells him to go back to the in-laws and they'll be happy to see him, but he's so ashamed that he won't, and instead wanders around until he ends up in a political meeting. He intends to go only for the warmth and shelter, but actually listens to the speaker, instead. The speaker, it turns out, is a socialist. Jurgis is transformed by his words and the concept of socialism (and boy, do we get to hear the whole concept explained in the pages and pages of the speech that are included). He's a complete convert, and carries the message home to his family and friends. He lucks into a job as a hotel porter, working for another socialist, and spends the next months canvassing for the socialist party. The book ends by illustrating, through the election, the growing socialist trend in the United States, and promising that it will be a great, sweeping movement that will soon control the country.

Well, obviously, the book has been a buildup to the idea that socialism will correct America's ills, and, though Sinclair was overly optimistic about that, it's not entirely incorrect. There were certainly socialist tendencies to the measures passed in subsequent years concerning welfare and working conditions. Even the idea of the minimum wage was based on those ideas. However, it was hardly the huge and sweeping movement that Sinclair predicted.

The great irony of the book, of course, is the Sinclair included the information about the impurity and filth of the meat-packing industry as something of a sidenote. He must have meant for it to be a revelation to his readers, but it was clearly supposed to be secondary to the revelation of the insane and horrific working conditions of those men and women employed by the industry. The information about the food that they were eating, however, was what hit American readers the hardest. It wasn't long afterward that the government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, as well as meat inspection legislation. Sinclair was aware of the fact that he missed his real goal, and was pretty bitter about it.

Do I think it's one of the greatest 100 novels of all time? Not really. The writing is clumsy and verges on hysterical, the plot is simply a device for communicating a political message, and, in the end, its impact of disgust is what distinguishes it the most. It is not unlike Atlas Shrugged, even down to the fact that it ends with pages and pages of political treatise masquerading as an event in the story - except, of course, for the fact that they are espousing completely opposite beliefs. I'd like to put them next to each other on the shelf and see if the covers start to burn on contact.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Where depression's just status quo

Current book: The Jungle
Pages read: 209 - 294

Ok, so, after Ona's death in childbirth, Jurgis lucks out and manages to get a job in a steel mill, where he can make a decent wage, though he only gets to come home on weekends. Antanas, his surviving one-year-old son, is his only joy. So, of course, one week while Jurgis is at the steel mill, Antanas meets with an accident in the street and dies. Afterward, Jurgis becomes a tramp for a while by riding trains through the countryside, then learns to mug people for a living, after which he works for the Chicago politicians doctoring votes, and eventually he becomes a strikebreaker. As a strikebreaker, however, he breaks his arm, loses his job, and, having crossed the wrong people, can't get another. He's currently reduced to a life of begging on the street.

Well, clearly, Sinclair is having a dandy time showing the plight of the working man. I'm not saying his descriptions of the horrors of the stockyards and the swindling and abuse inflicted on poor immigrant workers at the turn of the century are unrealistic, but it's obvious that Jurgis represents the Everyman, and as such, all the horrible things that can happen to someone in his socio-economic class are happening to him. Sinclair is laying it on a bit thick, but then again, he's hoping to make a dramatic emotional impact on his reader.

The irony of Jurgis's strikebreaking shouldn't be lost on the reader, either, since he's basically helping the very men who have destroyed his entire life. Sinclair is careful to make it clear, though, with this and all the irresponsible or immoral acts that Jurgis commits, that any man in his position, driven by injury, grief, maddening frustration, and physical hunger, would do the same. And it's true. By the time Jurgis starts mugging toffs for their cash, you're asking yourself why the hell he didn't start doing it sooner.

The thrilling conclusion in tomorrow's episode.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The oncoming train.

Current book: The Jungle
Pages read: 123 - 209

I simply don't have the time to update tonight. Bad things happened. Jurgis went to jail for assaulting the foreman who forced Ona to have sex with him just to keep her job, and Ona died in childbirth. They lost the house. More later.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Slaughter is the best medicine.

Current book: The Jungle
Pages read: 53 - 123

Plot-wise, Grandfather Antanas dies of sepsis from working in a pickle factory, and when Marija and Jurgis have their first son, they name him Antanas after the deceased. Jurgis sprains his ankle and loses his job, which is obviously a huge issue, since they have to pay the mortgage. The company that sold them the house will repossess if they miss even one month's payment. Um, that's all? Oh, I almost forgot - Jurgis joined the union! Socialism is afoot!

The rest is just story after story of dangerous working conditions and unfair treatment. I'll try to be more descriptive tomorrow. Frostbite from freezing cow blood is a common complaint, and blood poisoning from handling rotting meat with cuts on your hands, as well. Fun times.


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