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The Perils of Privilege: Wharton and Fitzgerald

Published only five years apart, Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence (1920),” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby (1925),” share some notable similarities: both feature male protagonists in bizarre and confusing romantic situations, and both offer glimpses into the privileged world of New York elites in the early Twentieth Century, albeit in slightly different ways. Specifically, “Age of Innocence,” depicts the period of time just before World war I, and has an air of nostalgia for a more innocent time, but also an undercurrent of insidious darkness about the changes yet to come. “The Great Gatsby,” on the other hand, takes place after the war, and explores the desolation of modernity, but also has undercurrents of nostalgia. This essay will use “The Age of Innocence” and “The Great Gatsby” to explore the different approaches Wharton and Fitzgerald take to exploring what feels simultaneously, like two different worlds, but also the same world.

Ideas about marriage, relationships, and gender dynamics play a large role in both novels. In “The Age of Innocence,” most of the key plot points center around the rumors of Countess Olenska infidelity, something which is highly scandalous in the world of the novel, and in one important scene, Archer comments on the double standards for men and women at this time, with regards to extramarital escapades, saying: “Women ought to be free – as free as we are (Wharton, p. 41).” Archer appears to be ahead of his time – something he will demonstrate throughout the novel – in that he understands that these rigid constraints on social life are detrimental to the happiness of many. The changes Archer anticipated come to fruition in “The Great Gatsby,” as women in the 1920s found themselves much more sexually liberated than their mothers and grandmothers. Of course, this transition was not met with joy by everyone, as Tom Buchanan remarks in Fitzgerald’s novel that women get around too much these days. The changes that accompany the passage of time we see in these two works transcend matters of sex, and permeate every aspect of society.

Wharton’s novel takes place a few decades before it was written, in the late Nineteenth century, in what is known as the “the Gilded Age,” an era in American history in which the rich were richer than they had ever been, and had spent generations enthralled in tradition. But things were changing, and looking back almost five decades later, Wharton points out how those changes were more obvious than people at the time may have realized:   

“ … the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the ‘new people,’ whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to … there was no reason why (Newland Archer)  should not have come earlier … New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in Metropolises it was ‘not the thing’ to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not ‘the thing’ played a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago (wharton, pp. 3 – 4).”

 

Notice how Wharton describes the characters (the world of fashion) as being “still content to reassemble,” indicating that this is something they have been doing for some time, then the word “content” implies a state somewhere in between apathy and enthusiasm, communicating that the characters are attending this gathering, not because they necessarily enjoy it, but rather out of some sense of social obligation. Wharton furthers this idea towards the end of the passage when she likens the need Archer feels to be fashionably late to the superstitions of his primitive ancestors, communicating how outdated these social graces to-which he and his friends cling are.  Next, consider some the adjectives Wharton uses to describe the scene in the first two lines, “shabby,” and “old,” so as beautiful as this opera house may be, it is past its prime, or soon will be. What’s more, the house’s patrons like the old place because it’s unattractive to “the new people,” referring to some nondescript group that has recently emerged, and seems to be upsetting New York’s cultural establishment, so much so, that they would rather retreat to their stuffy fortresses of tradition than embrace the newness that has begun to bubble up under the surface.   

“The Great Gatsby” is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young man from the Midwest who has moved to the West Egg community of Long Island of New York, and finds himself the neighbor of the wealthy and mysterious Jay Gatsby. Gatsby holds lavish parties every evening, with New York’s elites as his guests, and when Nick gets invited to one, we see, through his eyes, what it means to be privileged in the new age of American Wealth:

“The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs … already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colours, and hair bobbed in strange new ways … the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names (Fitzgerald, p. 45).”

 

These are, of course, “the new people” Wharton was referring to in the previous passage. The most striking difference between this scene and any from Wharton’s novel which describes a social gathering is the sheer amount of liveliness running through it, as well as the clear lack of any formality to the scene. The first line in this passage doesn’t seem to have anything interesting about it “The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs,” but one should ask if such a line would appear in Wharton’s novel? The act of dressing is intimate and private, and while “The Age of innocence” depicts many intimate moments between its characters, they are always fully clothed, with not even a mention of them ever being nude, thus we have our first indication that the world being portrayed in “The Great Gatsby” is one less concerned with stuffy notions of propriety. Next, consider the use of the word “gaudy” to describe the aesthetics of the scene, and how the hairstyles are described as “strange and new.” Fitzgerald and Wharton are both interested in fashion and aesthetics, but Wharton is focused on the traditional styles of the old order, while Fitzgerald revels in the new. The final sentences are the most important in illustrating the differences in how the two novels portray social gatherings. “ … introductions forgotten on the spot on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.” These people are paying little attention to the kinds of rigid formalities which Wharton’s characters would be mortified to ignore. Yes, both novels center around the lifestyles of the well-to-do, but Fitzgerald’s characters are the nouveau-riche, they have the same amount of wealth, but they are not the same people.     

What it means to be rich does not stay the same from era to era; one would think that money is money, and what a person does with it, or how they earn it wouldn’t matter, so long as they have it, but when we examine two contrasting scenes from “The Age of Innocence,” and “The Great Gatsby,” we see things are much more complicated than that. Here Wharton gives us a look at Newland Archer’s professional life:  

“No one was deceived by his pretense of professional activity. In old-fashioned legal firms … which were mainly engaged in the management of large estates and ‘conservative’ investments, there were always two or three young men, fairly well-off, and without professional ambition … though it was supposed to be proper for them to have an occupation, the crude fact of money making was still regarded as derogatory, and the law, being a profession was accounted a more gentlemanly pursuit than business (Wharton, p. 215 – 216).”

 

Note how the narrator uses the phrase “professional activity” rather than profession to describe what Archer does, suggesting that Archer’s career as a lawyer is something less than a pursuit, and more something he does at his leisure. Then, Wharton explicitly states that the young men who populate these law firms have no ambition, and that’s because they don’t have any reason to be, as they already come from wealthy families. Wealth is a given for these young men, one couldn’t call them successful, as success implies that a person has put in some kind of effort – they’re just rich, it even says that money making is ‘derogatory,’ as though, in this world, money only means something if it’s inherited; because to earn your own money meant that you did not have a legacy, that you had no history in your family, and thus no prestige to your name. The wealthy young men of this era, about whom Wharton is writing in this passage, seem to act as though they are some kind of American nobility – without the titles – hence law being referred to as a  ‘gentlemanly pursuit,’ similar to how the aristocracy of the old world would practice fencing, or hawking, or some other idle activity. But again, we should remember that Wharton is viewing this scene in retrospect, hence the phrase “still regarded as derogatory,” indicating that this was a world on its last legs. What’s more, this scene is viewed through Newland Archer’s eyes, with any distaste with-which it is infused coming from him, illustrating that there was a desire for change, even among the establishment. However, some people still wanted to cling to the old way.

Jay Gatsby’s ultimate desire is to acquire the love of the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, whom he has loved since his youth. Unfortunately for Jay, he has a rival, Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, an old money alpha male, who sees right through Jay’s ostentatious facade:

“‘Who is this Gatsby anyhow?’ demanded Tom suddenly. ‘Some big bootlegger?’

“‘Where’d you hear that?’ I enquired.

“‘I didn’t hear it. I imagined it. A lot of these newly rich people are just big bootleggers, you know.’

“‘Not Gatsby,’ I said shortly …

“‘Well, he certainly must have strained himself to get this menagerie together.’ (Fitzgerald, pp. 111 – 112).”

 

This scene and the one we just viewed from Wharton are almost opposites: in the former, we have someone from old money airing his distaste for the status quo, while the latter has a son of the establishment airing his grievances for “the new people.”  This stretch of dialogue perfectly encapsulates how people like Tom viewed people like Jay: Tom is so threatened by the idea of his social sphere being infiltrated, that when he sees someone with the potential to do so, he instantly assumes the other person’s means have been acquired through illegitimate means – yes, Jay actually is a bootlegger, but at this point in the story, Tom doesn’t know that for sure. While wealth has become easier to acquire in this new era, and the stigma against “less gentlemanly” professions may have lessened, Gatsby and his contemporaries are still unable to buy the status that Tom has gained through inheritance. Rather than get the world to pay attention to him, the garish parties Gatsby throws to show off his wealth and attract Daisy’s attention only remind him of how much he, and many others like him, still have to prove.  

Wharton and Fitzgerald’s novels view the same world through different lenses: Wharton places herself in the past and looks forward, while Fitzgerald remains in the present and looks back. “The Age of Innocence” surveys a glorious past, while still taking time to watch for the darkness approaching over the horizon; “The Great Gatsby” basks in the glamorous danger of the new world. Examined side by side, Fitzgerald and Wharton’s novels provide a rich picture of two of the most colorful periods in our country’s history, and help us understand profound truths about wealth, class, and love, which are still worth contemplating today.   

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Book Review: “Lincoln in the Bardo,” by George Saunders

In my recent review of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” I wrote about the apparent spectrum of respectability within literature, with “authors’ authors” occupying the more prestigious end of the spectrum. I wrote of how due to their tendencies to feature prose designed for style rather than readability and favor intellectual statements over well-structured plots, the works of “ more serious authors” can be seen as pretentious. While I did not necessarily mean this as a criticism of contemporary literary fiction, there was one book I read this year which seems to possess every quality I find to be repugnant about literature in the early Twenty-First Century: a confusing plot, contrived attempts to impart some grandiose social message, and an unwarranted need to experiment with form. This book received near universal acclaim from critics, was named on multiple best of lists, and touted by literary scholars across the country as a masterpiece. Of course the book I am talking about is George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo,” a – and I use this word quite liberally – novel, so migraine inducing, so excruciatingly pretentious, that the rapturous reaction the literary community had to it almost made me doubt my choice to pursue writing as a career. This is not going to be a review, so much as a rant in which I will be exorcising some of the demons reading this book conjured in my soul.
To begin, I should say that there’s a bit of a story around why I read “Lincoln in the Bardo,” the details of which make publishing a scathing review of it on the internet awkward for me, as well as illustrate the importance of separating art from its creator. Earlier this year I completed undergraduate study at Rutgers University – Go Knights! – where, in my final semester, I chose to take a course in Twenty-First Century Literature with one of the assigned books being … “Lincoln in the Bardo.” Did my professor choose this novel because of its artistic merits? Possibly, but I think the larger contributing factor was the fact that Mr. Saunders was going to pay a visit to my beloved alma mater that semester, and part of my grade for the course included attendance of a talk he was to give. I listened to Mr. Saunders speak for about an hour, and found him to be humble, funny, charismatic to a fault, and overall an immensely likable human being. The fact that “Lincoln in the Bardo” is the first book I’ve ever reviewed whose author I’ve met makes me realize that, as reviewers, not meeting the artists whose works we consume is a privilege. I will admit that had Mr. Saunders been as stereotypically arrogant and condescending as I hoped he would be, ripping this book apart would be even more fun than it already is, but I would still focus on the shortcomings of his work – I started this blog to critique books and not personalities.
The book centers around Willie Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln who, after passing away from an illness at the age of eleven, was laid to rest in Georgetown Cemetery. From there the book covers a single night, as Willie Lincoln’s spirit leaves his body, and interacts with various lost souls who, due to their refusal to acknowledge their being dead, have taken up residence in the graveyard. This premise is not a bad one. From Poe to Gaiman, literary ghost stories have been successfully done multiple times, but what makes Saunders’ book unique is the social commentary he injects into it by having the ghosts represent different groups within society: soldiers, rich, poor, slaves, slave owners. My problem with the book is not its premise, but how Saunders chooses to execute that premise.
During Saunders’ talk at Rutgers, he told an anecdote of giving his wife a draft of “Lincoln in the Bardo” to read. After reading the manuscript, Saunders’ wife asked him if this could really be called a novel. I found it absolutely uncanny that someone so close to Saunders, his wife nonetheless, made the same observation about his work as I did. This book is not a novel. Novels have plots: a series of events which build tension, eventually leading to a climax, and ending with some form of resolution. A narrative does not necessarily need to follow this formula to be successful, Melville’s “Moby Dick,” arguably the greatest novel ever written, feels more like a collection of anecdotes than a structured story. A more contemporary example, such as Diaz’s “Drown” blurs the line between novel and short story, creating a single narrative out of several small ones. However, with those works, there was an elegant flow to the fragmentary elements, bringing them together in a satisfying way. While “Moby Dick” and “Drown” feel like well-engineered pieces of machinery, the haphazard nature of “Lincoln in the Bardo” makes it feel like someone dumping a box of machine parts on your head.
The book is narrated by multiple characters, by which I mean, almost every character narrates at some point. What is more, Saunders chooses to compose each chapter of short quotes from them, constantly jumping back and forth between their points of view. In his excellent book “How to Read Literature Like a Professor,” Thomas C. Foster writes that reading a novel is supposed to be like a conversation between the reader and the author. Saunders makes reading “Lincoln in the Bardo” feel more like being trapped in a room with a hundred extraordinarily pissed off people all screaming at one another. I cannot describe this haphazard narration style as anything other than frustrating and confusing. Telling a story from multiple points of view can and has been done successfully many times, most notably in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. Martin’s approach is superior to Saunders for several reasons: Martin narrows his pool of narrators to a handful of characters – usually seven or eight per book – whereas Saunders, as previously stated felt the need to give every single character a chance to narrate, making it difficult to keep track of who is speaking. What is more, while Martin spends entire chapters inside his characters’ heads, providing readers with an intimate portrait of who they are, Saunders typically only gives his narrators a few lines to say their piece before moving on to the next one, never giving us a chance to establish a relationship with them. Most importantly, Saunders rarely stays with a single narrator long enough to give us a complete idea of what is happening in the plot, thus forcing exhaustive efforts on the part of the reader to gain a handle on the story. The phrase “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” kept popping up in my mind as I read this book. Now, I’m not saying artists shouldn’t experiment with new approaches to their mediums, but I honestly don’t understand how what Saunders does here is superior to a “more traditional” form.
I’ve often written of how literature’s most significant power resides in its ability to impart profound observations about the real world through fiction, and while “Lincoln in the Bardo” makes heroic attempts to do this, the grievances I have previously aired with Saunders’ book causes these attempts to fall flat. Saunders wants this book to be an exploration of race and class, but the apparatuses through which those explorations are supposed to be conducted, i.e., characters and plot, are crafted in such a convoluted way, that any profundity becomes buried.
Whenever I start a book, I make a point of keeping my expectations neutral, and even if a book proves difficult, I will always continue on, hoping it will redeem itself in some way. When I give books a chance, I usually find something I can enjoy or appreciate it. I gave “Lincoln in the Bardo” as much of a chance as any other book, tried as hard as I could to appreciate it for what it was, and all it left me with was a feeling of wasted time and energy.

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The Perils of Consumption: Rand and McCarthy on Liberal Humanism

 

While to an extent true that the ideas stemming from Liberal Humanism – laissez-faire economics, individual rights, and free and open competition in all fields – have operated as a liberating force in the modern world, when left unchecked, practice of these ideas can result in disastrous consequences for the same people and institutions they are meant to benefit. Ayn Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness,” is a collection of essays in which she goes into extensive detail as to why total economic freedom is the only acceptable way of life. In contrast to this, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” presents a bleak image of Liberal Economics taken to the greatest possible extreme, damaging the world beyond recognition, and causing the Human Race to (literally) eat itself alive. This essay will use both texts to gain an understanding of the role Liberal Humanism plays in the deterioration of our society, as-well-as determine if its benefits are worth the costs.

Ayn Rand took laissez-faire economics – the idea that for a society to be truly prosperous, there should be as few restrictions and regulations as possible on that nation’s industries, and its citizens capacity to gain wealth by whatever means – to their greatest possible extreme, arguing that any attempt by the government to meddle in a person’s private economic interests is a violation of his or her’s most intimate rights. In her essay “Man’s Rights,” Rand writes:

“The right to property means that a man has the right to take the economic actions necessary to earn property, to use it and to dispose of it  … Those who advocate laissez-faire capitalism are the only advocates of man’s rights. (Rand, p. 93).”

Rand is saying that economic freedom is intrinsically tied to freedom in general. The only free nations or states are the ones who employ laissez-faire capitalism to its fullest, allowing people to take whatever actions needed to acquire as much wealth as possible.  Under this ideology, achieving one’s personal and economic desires superseded everything else – any actions taken to achieve those goals are justifiable, and any actions that place others over oneself are destructive; one should only act on behalf of himself, and if something or someone cannot be of use in achieving your goals, then they are devoid of value, even our fellow human beings.

In Rand’s philosophy, individual rights supersede all forms of authority. While opposition to oppressive governments has often affected positive change throughout history – the American and French revolutions, the Civil Rights Movement – Rand’s is concerned more with self-servitude than improving the human condition.

“A society that robs an individual of the product of his effort, or enslaves him, or attempts to limit the freedom of his mind, or compels him to act against his own rational judgement … is not, strictly speaking, a society, but a mob held together by gang rule (Rand, p. 102).”

Taken by themselves, these words are not inflammatory or destructive, but they become such when one considers the intent behind them. For Rand, robbing an individual of the product of his effort meant having to make a sacrifice for the sake of the collective good, attempting to limit the freedom of his mind meant acknowledging that some of his ideas may not translate to the real world, and compelling him to act against his own rational judgement meant compelling him to realize that, while beneficial to him, certain actions he takes may have negative consequences for others around him.

Rand was also a strong proponent of free and open competition within the economic sphere, believing that a landscape free of regulation from governing bodies would allow the most intelligent, creative, visionary individuals to exercise their abilities to their fullest potential. In her essay “The Monuments,” Rand uses great buildings, such as the pyramids of Egypt and the skyscrapers of today to illustrate how unencumbered competition benefits all of society:

“America’s skyscrapers were not built by public funds nor for a public purpose: they were built by the energy, initiative and wealth of private individuals for personal profit. And, instead of impoverishing the people, these skyscrapers, as they rose higher and higher, kept raising the people’s standard of living—including the inhabitants of the slums, who lead a life of luxury compared to the life of an ancient Egyptian slave or of a modern Soviet Socialist worker (Rand. p. 86).”

 

Here Rand presents an image of the world where the best and brightest have been allowed to let their talents shine, creating awe-inspiring structures which act as monuments to human greatness, and affording everyone a quality of life which would be otherwise impossible. Everyone who wins and loses in this world deserves to, either due to their talent, or lack-thereof. It is a perfectly fair world, where no outside forces are necessary to maintain order. This is Rand’s belief, now, the remainder of this essay will use McCarthy’s “The Road” to challenge its validity.

 

In “The Road,” we see a world which has endured both the destruction of civilization, and the death of all natural life on Earth: no birds flying overhead, no fish in the rivers, no animals in the forest which might be hunted. All that’s left are a few scraps of the old world. We see the remnants of Liberal Economics in how the survivors treat one another, something illustrated to horrifying effect in one particularly striking scene:

“The boy clutched at (his father’s) coat. He could see part of the stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous (McCarthy, p. 110).”   

 

We share the horror of the characters in this scene as they discover human beings held captive so that the house’s inhabitants can eat them one body part at a time. Rather than the active “naked people were huddled against the back wall,” McCarthy uses the passive “Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female,” putting us in the perspective of the boy and man. The details creep in on us, forcing us to put everything together ourselves, and making the scene especially powerful. What’s more, McCarthy uses subtlety to great effect: the captives – who are, for all intents and purposes, livestock – are clearly afraid to see and hear people coming downstairs, which means they have been down there for quite some time, and the alliteration used to describe the stumps of the man’s thighs as “blackened and burnt,” emphasizes the terrifying nature of this scene. In this world, things are defined by their capacity for usefulness, just as how in laissez-faire capitalism, things are defined by their capacity for profit. The only things of any use are other people, reduced to nothing more than the meat on their bones. This scene is a striking visualization of how the principles stemming from liberal economics can persist in a post-civilized world. These people are being kept, stored, clearly whoever is holding them wants to keep them alive and consume their body parts gradually, like the man whose legs have been cut off. Their captors are maximizing their usefulness, just as laissez-faire capitalists believe all should be done to maximize the profits to be had from a resource. That this scene takes place at a former slave owning plantation has a special significance, as it ties this potential future to a period in the past when humans were also “consumed” for profit. How fitting that a novel critiquing Liberal Economics has a key scene take place in a relic of colonialism, the era in-which Liberal Economics truly took hold? In his critical essay, Cannibalism, Consumerism, and Profanation: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the End of Capitalism,” Jordan J. Dominy explores the visible remnants of a consumer society in the post-apocalyptic landscape, such as the plantation house. Dominy believes that even in colonial days, the human cost of rampant capitalism was not lost on writers, with many comparing the consumption of luxury goods imported from the colonies—sugar, for example—with the exploitations of the enslaved bodies that toiled to produce it. The eighteenth-century social critic Jonas Hanaway went so far as to this as  “autocannibalism”(Dominy, 2015).

The world of the novel is a lawless one, all the structures which oppressed people in the old world are gone, but so are those which maintained order, forcing survivors to rely only on themselves. The individual is more important than ever, with the only right left being the right to fight for one’s life. While the father knows that the only way to survive is through selfishness, the boy still maintains that there is room for altruism in this landscape, as seen in their interaction with the traveler Ely:

“(The boy) reached with his scrawny claws and took (the can of fruit) and held it to his chest. Eat it, the boy said. The old man looked down at the tin. He took a fresh grip and lifted it, his nose wrinkling …

“I know what the question is, the man said. The answer is no.

“What’s the question?

“Can we keep him. We can’t (McCarthy, p. 164).”

Within Rand’s version of Liberal Humanism, the right’s of the individual supercede the collective good – one must do what is best for one’s self regardless of how it may affects others. In “The road,” we see this attitude is able to manifest itself to its greatest possible extreme, where the concept of a collective good does not exist – in a world with rampant scarcity, everyone must fight for whatever they can get, and generosity makes no sense. What’s more, where laws once enforced human rights, people must defend themselves from oppressive forces in the post-apocalyptic landscape. Thus, only way possible for one to express their individual rights in this world is to make conscious decisions that will ensure their survival. While the father is not inherently a selfish person, he keeps the meager resources he has acquired for himself and his son because to do otherwise would put themselves at risk. The conversation above illustrates how the father’s self-interest conflicts with the boy’s innocent sense of generosity. In their current environment, sympathy such as the boy’s is a liability, and while it is certainly not in line with Randian ideas of free will and individual rights, it does point out a fallacy in the self-centered philosophies of Liberal Humanism. Liberal Humanism preaches that the individual should be allowed to do whatever he or she wishes with their wealth, most who subscribe to this philosophy interpret this to mean that they should not have to expend resources on anything that doesn’t benefit themselves, but if one truly does have the right to use their wealth in whatever way pleases them, and one wants to use their wealth to help others, then Liberal Humanism does support altruism. McCarthy connects the concept of free will to altruism by emphasizing the boy’s hands in this passage: hands are a universal symbol of generosity, but they also symbolize the ability to take action and exercise one’s will. What is more, the boy is giving Ely fruit, a symbol fertility and prosperity – the fruits of one’s labors, be fruitful and multiply, etc. – but it is canned, a leftover from the the pre-apocalyptic world, just like the boy’s spirit of giving – in a world where nothing grows, this canned fruit is the only fruit which will ever exist; in a world where altruism is obsolete, generosity will only come from someone too innocent to understand the new selfish reality.  

Though the concept of an economy has been relegated to nothing more than a memory in the world of “The Road,” the remnants of free and open competition are strong enough in the minds of survivors for them execute them to absolutely horrifying effect, as seen in the man and boy’s observation of a cannibalistic blood cult:  

 “An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings … some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon … Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled high with goods of war, and after that the women, a dozen or more, some of them pregnant …  (McCarthy, pp. 91 – 92).”

In this stretch of narration, there is no idea given to us of what the man or boy are doing, no descriptions of what they are thinking or feeling. Indeed, this scene has an almost detached quality to it, presenting itself  through some omniscient authority, whose cold and methodical description grant an extra weight of omniscience to the blood cult’s presence. What’s more, notice how objective the above passage feels, there are no adjectives adding any layer of emotional terror, nor is there any need to, McCarthy lets the scene speak for itself, letting us discern for ourselves the cult’s role in this world, and placing us side-by-side with the father and son, watching the absolute worst this world has to offer parade by us. We know that the men at the front, carrying weapons, are the leaders, the strongest, and therefore the most well equipped to lead this cult. In Randian logic, they occupy the same place as an inventive artist or CEO, whose natural talents have granted them a position of great prestige. Of course, the flaw in this mentality is that if there is nothing restraining just what such individuals are allowed to do in competition, then they will be allowed to empower themselves to the point where they can eliminate all other competitors and take everything for themselves. McCarthy is aware of this and chocks this scene full of imagery to communicate it. Consider the crude weapons the leaders carry, a product of their own sadistic imagination, and which are now used to augment their brute strength, and coerce others into subservience. Also, the slaves: while the man and boy carry their goods themselves, expending the meager energy they have in the process, the cult leaders let the slaves bare that burden, freeing them to use their energy solely for inflicting violence on all who stand in their way. Then we have the women, who could be seen as wives of the cult leaders, until one considers that the purpose of the cult is to amass as many resources as possible for the leaders’ use, resources which would be wasted caring for helpless children, therefore, we should conclude that these women are being kept by the cult leaders to breed babies which will later be cannibalized. Here we see laid out before us the post-apocalyptic ghost of unencumbered competition, an entity designed solely for the purpose of consumption, with nothing limiting how much it is able to consume, or what methods it is able to employ to grow its capacity for consumption. Like the corporations of the pre-apocalyptic world, the cult has reached a level of power that makes it impossible for other groups or individuals to challenge them, allowing them to consume until there is nothing left, and even they starve.

Ayn Rand would have us believe that there is a natural order to Capitalist societies and that all would be well if we were allowed to earn, compete, and consume as much as we want, in whatever way we want. McCarthy is concerned with a much harsher reality, presenting a world where Capitalism has collapsed under its own grotesque weight, leaving little of the world we knew behind. Rand’s writing deals with hope, while “The Road” deals with fear, the fear that we have conditioned the act of consumption so deeply into our nature, that when there is nothing left to consume, we will consume ourselves.

reviews/analysis

A Postmodern Adolescence: “The Virgin Suicides,” by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Though there is some debate as to precisely when the Postmodern period of literature ended, if it ended at all, it is generally agreed upon that Postmodernism’s peak lasted from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s. Published in 1992, Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel “The Virgin Suicides” should fit firmly in that window. Taking place in the 1970s, in an unspecified upper middle class suburb in Michigan, Eugenides’ novel is narrated by the collective the voice of the community’s teenage boys, now grown men, recalling their fascination with the five beautiful Lisbon sisters – Lux, Cecilia, Mary, Bonnie, and Therese – and how they all committed suicide over the course of a year. Eugenides’ novel mythologizes the fragility of suburban youth and examines the darkness that resides within the cracks of the American family. Of course, just because a book is published during a certain literary movement’s peak, does not necessarily mean it’s part of it. In this essay, we will determine if “The Virgin Suicides” can genuinely be considered a Postmodern novel, by dissecting specific scenes in the texts and comparing them to other books and films to determine how they deal with aesthetics, identity, and sexuality.  

The narrative center of “The  Virgin Suicides” is the neighborhood boys’ obsessive desire to explain why the Lisbon sisters ended their lives. In their quest, they steal the diary of Cecilia, the youngest sister, and the first to commit suicide, to gain insight into her mental state leading to her death. However, in attempting to explore who Cecilia was as a person, our narrators come up with more questions than answers, including ones about the nature of identity. Eugenides writes:       

“The diary is an unusual document of adolescence in that it rarely depicts the emergence of an unformed ego. The standard insecurities, laments, crushes, and daydreams are nowhere in evidence. Instead, Cecilia writes of her sisters and herself as a single entity. It’s often difficult to identify which sister she’s talking about, and many strange sentences conjure in the reader’s mind an image of a mythical creature with ten legs and five heads, lying in bed eating junk food, or suffering visits from affectionate aunts (Eugenides, pp. 38 – 39).”

 

Unlike the Victorians, who viewed identity as dependent upon one’s relations with others, or Modernists, who saw it as something outside social norms, Postmodernists maintain that the self is something entirely shallow, nothing beyond social constructs, and drawn from predetermined roles within society. In the case of the Lisbon sisters, that predetermined role is that of the American teenage girl, forced upon them by a patriarchal, conservative society. The narrators note how Cecilia’s journal is lacking in any ego, and that she seems to view herself and her sisters as indistinct from one another, as though she seems to have no sense of identity beyond being “a Lisbon sister.” Our narrators also notice the lack of any imagination or romantic desire in Cecilia’s writing, as though she is incapable of abstract thought, or thinking beyond herself, and since Cecilia views herself as inseparable from her sisters, we can conclude that the other girls may be the same. The Lisbon sisters’ apparent lack of individuality is due to their being raised by strict Christian parents, who forced them into a cloistered existence, in which they were allowed very little exposure to the outside world, and denied chances to connect with anyone outside their family. Thusly, the girls connected with the only people available, one another. That said, however specific the girls’ unique psychological state is, their lack of individuality should be viewed as exemplary of how Twentieth and Twenty-first-century culture trains teenage girls to conduct themselves. American culture forces women and girls to adopt a constellation of accepted behaviors so as to function. In doing so, they allow themselves to become a homogenous mass, rather than a collection of individuals, similar to how the Lisbons are described as “an image of a mythical creature with ten legs and five heads, lying in bed eating junk food … ” When we consider our culture’s dehumanizing treatment of girls, we begin to notice that the neighborhood boys’ concern with the Lisbon’s and their deaths seems to be derived less from any sort of empathy, and more a voyeuristic fascination. The boys look at the Lisbons as curiosities to be understood, rather than people to be helped, and their investigation into their deaths feels primarily motivated by the need to satisfy their own interest, rather than possibly help anyone who may be going through similar strife.  

A postmodern work which parallels “The Virgin Suicides” take on identity is Michael Cunningham’s novel “The Hours,” specifically in the arc of Mrs. Brown, who struggles with her less than privileged role as a woman in 1950s America, as illustrated in the scene in which we are introduced to her:

   “She should not be permitting herself to read, not this morning of all mornings; not on Dan’s birthday. She should be showered and dressed, fixing breakfast for Dan and Richie. She can hear them downstairs, her husband making his own breakfast … (Cunningham, p. 38).”

 

Here Mrs. Brown feels anxiety at slacking in her duties as a wife and mother; she feels embarrassment at the knowledge that her husband has to make his own breakfast. These negative feelings are drawn less from the need to make her family happy, and more from fear of what society may think of her not fulfilling the role assigned for her. Her personality at this point in the novel is wrapped entirely in the shallow, predetermined set of tasks she must fulfill, and not in any internal desire for spiritual or intellectual growth. Like the Lisbon sisters, Mrs. Brown’s is not an identity she has chosen for herself, but one the world has thrust upon her.

A novel entitled “The Virgin Suicides” should be deeply concerned about the sexuality of its characters. Indeed, part of the reason the boys are so infatuated with the Lisbon’s is their sexual purity. However, as the boys and the readers eventually realize, this purity has been imposed upon them by their family, eventually causing one of them, Lux, to rebel through promiscuity – it should be said that Lux’s behavior renders the book’s title somewhat ironic, as she is not a virgin when she commits suicide. Lux’s sexual escapades become legendary among the boys, and their reaction to them grants an opportunity to explore Postmodernism’s take on human sexuality.     

 

“A cellophane body swept its arms back and forth against the slate tiles like a child drawing an angel in the snow; then another darker body could be discerned, sometimes in a fast food restaurant uniform … once in the drab gray suit of an accountant … Lux and her partners enjoyed relative safety, but there was the unavoidable prior noise of sneaking down to let boys and men in … the men sweating, risking statutory rape charges, the loss of their careers, divorce … For our own part, we learned a great deal about the techniques of love … Years later, when we lost our own virginities, we resorted in our panic to pantomiming Lux’s gyrations on the roof … We received reports of her erotic adventures … the acidic taste of her saliva … but none of these signs of malnourishment or illness or grief … detracted from Lux’s overwhelming impression of being a carnal angel (Eugenides, pp. 140 – 143).”  

 

The above passage is highly indicative of the postmodern idea of sexuality as having no privileged role within perceptions of identity, as well as the belief that any importance placed upon sexuality are illusions. Note how the narrators begin by referring to Lux in this scene only as a body, this choice of words communicates to us that the image of Lux engaging in the act of sex is divorced from any picture of her as a human being with a personality. The layperson traditionally views sex as an act of bonding, in which lovers can come to know each other, but Postmodernism maintains that sex is a purely physical act, with no profundity to be found therein. Lux is a body, nothing more than a  mass of flesh and bone into which someone may insert his penis. Postmodern ideas about the deprivatization of sex are apparent in the line which refers to the older men Lux seduces as “ … risking statutory rape charges, the loss of their careers, divorce,” thus illustrating the constant scrutiny of, and ubiquitous concern with, other people’s sex lives, which is highly indicative of the Postmodern era. While works from other eras also contain this motif – Rochester experiences public humiliation for his attempted bigamy – it is it’s unabashed and uncoded approach to portraying the public reaction to people’s sexuality that makes postmodernism unique. Part of what is supposed to make sex special is that it is supposed to be a private act, but here sex is a matter of public knowledge, and the boys draw upon it for their own use. By definition, something cannot be personal if it’s shared by the public, and if something is not personal, it has no special meaning to you as an individual.

   Treatment of sex as a resource or commodity is also seen in Michael Gundry’s film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” in which Joel (played by Jim Carrey), heartbroken after his breakup with his girlfriend, Clementine (played by Kate Winslet), pays for a medical procedure to have his memories of their relationship removed from his mind, including memories of their sex life. The company in the film treats erasing people’s memories like a service, not unlike tuning up a person’s car, or debugging their computer, and they approach their work with the same casual professionalism as a mechanic removing a worn out engine part, or a programmer deleting a piece of outdated software – the technicians who perform this service show no reverence for the intimate moments they are destroying, they are only there to do a job and get paid. If your memories and experiences of sexual intimacy become, not only disposable but something that can be disposed of as a means of making a profit, then do they mean anything?  

Among other things, Eugenides’ novel is an examination of how Americans react to tragedy, a key part of which, especially in a work set in Twentieth or Twenty-First century, should be the role of the mass media – television, radio, and in this case, newspapers.

“The newspaper, later writing about what they termed a suicide pact, treated the girls as automatons, creatures so barely alive that their deaths came as little change … boiled two or three months and the suffering of four individuals into a paragraph with a heading “When Youth Sees No Future” … often quoted rock lyrics that alluded to death or suicide. (The reporter) befriended a local deejay and spent an entire night listening to the records that Lux’s schoolmates listed among her favorites … a song of the band Cruel crux entitled “Virgin Suicide” … Virgin suicide/ What was that she cried?/ No use in staying’/ On this Holocaust ride/ she gave her cherry/  She’s my virgin suicide (Eugenides, pp. 170 – 171).”\

 

Part of the Postmodern aesthetic is a reverence for mass culture, and a celebration of the ordinary, this may be the one area in which “The Virgin Suicides” is subversive of Postmodern ideas, for while mass-produced cultural properties are a significant presence in the novel, Eugenides frames these elements of the story in a less humorous or ironic light than some of his contemporaries would. Indeed, there is a palpably seething critique of the dehumanizing nature of the public’s relationship to media. The narrators criticize the reporters for presenting the girls as having no life in them, then trivializing their anguish into the something as common as a newspaper headline. These were people whom the boys knew, to whom they felt almost mystical, albeit objectifying attraction, and yet the media crassly use them as bait for readers and viewers. While most Postmodern works would shagrinely shrug their shoulders at the idea of a person’s life being reduced to a series of mundane details, Eugenides’ characters react with subtle fury. The mention of the reporter listening to Lux’s favorite rock records gets to the heart of Postmodern aesthetics, namely, an emphasis on the idea that people not only relate to the world through the media they consume but that a person’s entire sense of identity is composed of their consumption habits. It is here we can detect a possible attempt by Eugenides to satirize Postmodernism, with the journalist filling the role of a Postmodernist, reducing Lux’s favorite things to their something she can use for professional gain, while Lux and the boys represent the masses, who feel a great loss at seeing the things they love robbed of any transcendent value.   

Postmodern literature can feel a bit soul-crushing at times, telling us that our sense of identity is shallow, and created for us by forces outside of our control, that our sexuality isn’t as important as we may like to think it is, and that the individuality we think we are creating for ourselves through consumption, only makes us more like everybody else. Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides” presents these ideas to us in a way that is palatable to readers, that empathizes with the frustration we may feel at wondering if the things we love and experience have any value. And the end of it we see a bit of the Lisbon sisters in ourselves, and a bit of ourselves in them.  

writing

Fairy Folk of Lewes

I.

 

Of all England’s towns, none are so beloved by the country’s fairies as Lewes in Sussex. The streets which wind and slope around the closely spaced houses provide many a hiding spot for magical folk, as-well-as ample opportunities to play nasty pranks on the humans who live and visit there. One evening, while stumbling from the Rights of Man pub, Roger Forster, a young man on holiday from London, found himself in the presence of a strikingly beautiful young lady, who had long, silky hair that flowed down her hair in honey-coloured waves, an angular face like a fox’s, and large, almond-shaped eyes that   seemed to glow electric blue in the darkness of midnight. In-spite of his intoxication, Roger heard the young lady with perfect clarity when she said: “Would you like some company for the night?” in a breathy, sensual voice. Roger nodded as a goofy smile spread across his face. The lady sauntered off into the night without another word, only smiling over her shoulder to beckon Roger along after her. He followed the woman through the twisting streets and dark corners, always at a distance, never quite able to catch up to her. Eventually, they came to the bridge, where the young woman stopped to lean against the railing. “Give us a kiss,” she smiled as Roger approached. He leaned in, but as he was just about to touch her lips, the young woman ceased to be solid, and Roger fell through her, plummeting some ten feet or so, landing in the river with a crash. He managed to break the surface, and as he floated there stunned, he heard the young woman’s voice shout “You’ll find plenty of fish down there.”  

 

II.

 

The old-growth forests of the surrounding area are a popular place for non-magical folk to explore … during the daytime. In 1874, a story appeared in several newspapers across the country, reporting how two girls – aged 15 and 17 – had gone into the woods on the night of the Summer Solstice, intending to perform a contrived variation of an ancient Celtic ritual. The next morning, they were found wandering the streets in hysterics, their neighbors attempted to coerce the girls inside to eat and rest, but they refused to let anyone touch them. They eventually had to be taken in by force, and once the local physician had a chance to examine them, he found the girls to be free of anyone physical trauma. A few days later, when the girls appeared to have calmed down, they were asked what happened to them, and reported many strange things: childish laughter echoing through the treetops, a large black shape with glowing red eyes that chased them through the footpaths, vines springing up from the ground and wrapping themselves around the girl’s’ ankles, as though trying to stop them from escaping. The next night, a dozen of Lewes’ strongest men armed themselves with axes and shotguns and organized a hunting party to flush out the evil within. The men were gone all night, and when the sun rose the next morning, only one emerged from the woods, face frozen in a mask of shock, hair turned pure white. When asked what had happened, he responded: “We found what it was that scared those girls.” When questioned further, he said: “I can’t tell you anything’ more, they only let me go if I promised I wouldn’t tell ya.” The man then burst into tears. For decades after that, the people of Lewes took great caution to not venture into the woods after dark, and it became something of a game among the town’s children to see who could stand closest to the tree line in the minutes before dusk. As the years passed, and those alive to remember the story of the girls and the hunting party grew old and died, people stopped fearing what lurk among the trees, and the local legend became nothing more than a pub tale, used to scare tourists.

 

III.

 

While fairy folk can be quite malicious in their dealings with human adults, they enjoy a      warm relationship with children, as they are open to a more colorful view of the world. In 1954, Matthew and Mary Thatcher noticed their daughter Matilda had been acting quite bizarrely, leaving plates of biscuits next to the rose bushes at night, performing silly dances where she would wiggle her arms over patches of mushrooms in the grass, and making squiggly chalk drawings like ancient runes all over the rocks on their property. When her parents asked Matilda what she was doing, she answered: “the fairies told me to.” Confused, Matthew and Mary equated Matilda’s behavior to an overactive imagination. Then, the family cat turned up dead, when asked if she knew what happened, Matilda said the fairies told her to poison the cat because he had been killing the mice and frogs the fairies had as friends. After that, Matthew and Mary hid the biscuits, washed the chalk runes from the rocks, tore up any mushrooms they found on the property, and refused to let their daughter out of the house, all the while, Matilda complained to them: “you can’t do that, you’ll make the fairies mad.” Suddenly, many bizarre and terrifying things began to happen to Matilda’s parents: birds, a dozen or more at a time, descended from the sky without provocation to chase them whenever they left the house, whenever they turned on the tap, a swarm of slimy, wriggling worms flooded out into the sink, causing them to scream in horror, and worst of all, their cows began producing sour milk – every single one of them. While Matthew and Mary were deep in discussion as to what they were going to do about their plight, Matilda came in and told them: “it’s the fairies, I told you, they’re mad at you.” Matilda’s parents shooed her away, but later that night, put a plate of biscuits near the roses. The next day, no birds flew out of the sky to chase them, no worms wriggled out of the faucet, and the cow’s milk was as fresh as it had ever been. From then on, Matilda was free to perform her silly rituals as much as she pleased, and the Thatcher family home never had a cat again.

 

IV.

 

One popular myth about fairy folk among humans, is that of the changeling, how fairies would steal infants from their beds, and replace them with inanimate objects bewitched to resemble children. This is a misconception, the truth is that fairies would take the form of a human woman’s husband, and impregnate her, thus creating a hybrid-child of sorts. These children, being of mixed heritage, tend to have curious attributes. Though outwardly human, changelings are more neurologically similar to fairy folk, while this can grant them proficiencies which exceed those of normal people – such as in the sciences or arts – it can also hinder their ability to interact with the non-magical. Lewes was home to one such child, a boy named Tyler Johnson, who, from the time he was a baby, would refuse to make eye contact with people, and spoke very little. Loud noises bothered Tyler, so-much-so, that his parents avoided taking him out in public, to the store, or to parties, for fear that he would be overwhelmed, and crumble to the ground, holding his ears shut, moaning like a wounded animal. Doctors diagnosed Tyler as being autistic, a label commonly applied to the misidentified changeling. Tyler found comfort in art, spending hours at a time scribbling abstract, geometric patterns onto paper – little did he, or anybody else know, that this was the language of the fairies, which entered his mind through mystical communications with his brethren.  One day, Tyler was in his front yard, examining a spider web in the grass, when Joshua, the stocky red-haired boy who lived down the street, approached him from behind. “Hey nutter,” Joshua shouted at Tyler, who did not respond. Frustrated, Joshua picked up a fresh pile of dog droppings, and threw at the back of Tyler’s head, as Tyler scrambled to remove the filth from his hair, Joshua pounced, pinning Tyler to the ground by his throat, fortunately, Tyler’s mother came rushing out of the house to chase Joshua away. Tyler went to bed that night with his head full of bitter thoughts at Joshua, unbeknownst to him, someone was listening. A few days later, Joshua went to the park to play football with his friends, a bad kick sent the ball flying into the bushes, and he went in to retrieve it, after waiting for Joshua for some time, his friends went into the bushes to discover he had virtually disappeared. Police from as far as two towns over were called in to look for him, alerts were posted throughout the country, but there was not a single trace of Joshua to be found.

reviews/analysis

Book Review: “Prep,” by Curtis Sittenfeld

Americans have a contradictory view of preparatory schools, most of us view them as little more than holding pens, where over-privileged children bide their time until they’re old enough to take their parents’ places among the elites. However, it is these same qualities that have caused us to mythologize prep school. There is an undeniable mystique about spending our most formative years cloistered off from the real world. Who among us didn’t fantasize about packing our bags and being spirited away from our families to be a part of a hidden world, where we will be free to indulge in whatever decadent fantasies we choose? What makes Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel “Prep” such a beautiful piece of literature, is how elegantly it subverts this trope, favoring a sense of melancholy and isolation over glamorous escapism. “Prep” chronicles Lee Fiora’s journey as she leaves her simple, but loving family in South Bend Indiana to attend the prestigious Ault School in Massachusetts. Over the next four years, we witness Lee receive a formal education in literature and arithmetic, as well as an informal one in the difference between those who have money, and those who don’t. We see and feel every cringe-inducing moment Lee experiences as she tries and fails to navigate the social politics of sex and friendship and feel her heartbreak as she inadvertently alienates herself from he family in her quest for something better.

 

If I could describe the plot structure of “Prep” in one word, it would be efficient: the book is divided into four sections – one for each year of Lee’s time at Ault – with each chapter in those sections centering around one or two key events. This approach both makes the novel feel much more streamlined than it would had Sittenfeld tried to cram as many of Lee’s experiences as she could, as well as allow for the situations in-which Lee finds herself to have their maximum emotional impact. The best example of this, and my favorite section of the novel, is when Lee’s parents visit Ault for parents’ weekend, an extremely important scene from a thematic standpoint, in that it is one of the few times when Lee’s old life, and her life at Ault, are forced to occupy the same space. Sittenfeld devotes a full forty pages to just one day, and in doing so, can thoroughly explore every nuance of Lee’s interaction with her parents, thus experience the pain and anguish they feel at the growing rift between them.    

 

“‘I don’t know what’s happened to you Lee, but I can tell you this much. You’re a disappointment. You’re selfish and you’re shallow and you have no respect for your mother and I, and I’m ashamed of you … When you started at Ault,’ my father continued, ‘I said to myself, I’ll bet there are a lot of kids who’d think really highly of themselves going to a place. And I thought, but I’m glad Lee has a good head on her shoulders. Well, I was wrong’ … And then – I don’t remember any anticipation or foreknowledge of this, only a stunned awareness that it had already happened – he raised his right hand and slapped me across the face (Sittenfeld, pp. 202 – 203).”   

 

Many readers will complain that this novel is pointless and that it wastes chances to make clear statements about life, but those who do, miss that that may, in fact, be the point. We’ve come to expect coming of age stories to be profound, for every element of their plot to propel the protagonist towards some life-affirming revelation. Stories like this are fun to read, but they can also be pandering and unrealistic. Our lives don’t come with built-in lessons, we have experiences, sometimes those experiences teach us things, and sometimes they don’t. As the novel’s narrator, Lee makes many insightful observations about being a teenager, but she does so as an adult, years after the events of the novel occur. This quieter, more cerebral brand of insight doesn’t make the story boring, it makes it realistic, and I find that realism refreshing.    

 

One frequent complaint regarding Lee’s character I have read in other reviews is that she lacks any discernible talents or ambition, and while I agree with this observation, I don’t see it as a discredit to the novel, but rather, as another reason why Lee is so relatable as a character. Not everyone is a superstar in high school: we can’t all be head cheerleaders, get elected Prom Queen, and get full scholarships to Yale where we graduate Summa Cum Laude – the overwhelming majority of us don’t, we just do what we can to get through, then move on to the next stage in our lives. One area in which I feel “Prep” excels is in how it portrays disappointment with life. Lee goes to Ault expecting it to be her gateway to a brighter world, only to discover that her difficulties do not leave her, they just change form: once she was a star pupil, Lee struggles just to catch up with the knowledge her more privileged classmates take for granted, eventually having to resort to cheating just to avoid being expelled. Prior to applying to Ault, Lee was seduced by fantasies of being romanced by handsome young boys in sweaters, but those fantasies are quickly shattered, and while she does eventually stumble into a relationship, Lee finds him indifferent, and his interest in her to be purely physical. Lee’s slow and begrudging realization that reality is not compatible with fantasy, draws a heartbreakingly honest parallel with to the emotional journey upon which we all find ourselves at that age. It is possible to find happiness and fulfillment in life, but they usually come from different sources than those we imagined. At some point, we have to accept the fact that life isn’t always going to turn out the way we hope it will.

 

Literature and popular culture have ingrained in our collective imagination the image of high school (and college) is an idyllic period in our lives, packed with beautiful friendships that last a lifetime, transformative adventures we remember fondly years later, and tremendous spiritual and intellectual growth. In writing “Prep,” Sittenfeld demonstrates a clear understanding that this candy-coated image of our teenage years is nothing more than a fantasy. Most of us forget how nerve-wracking our teenage years can be, Sittenfeld hasn’t.

 

 

reviews/analysis

Book Review: “American Gods,” by Neil Gaiman

There is a spectrum of respectability in contemporary literature: on one end are what one would call “author’s authors,” or authors of literary fiction, such as George Saunders, Ian McEwan, and Junot Diaz, writers who are deemed “more serious,” and whose work tends to emphasize style and intellectual merit over enjoyability – these writers are often accused of pretentiousness, as-well-as having weak instincts for storytelling. On the opposite end of the respectability spectrum are authors of genre fiction – horror, sci-fi, and fantasy – such as Stephen King, Victoria Schwabe, and Sarah J. Maas, authors who display admirable skill in world-building and crafting entertaining, well-structured stories, but whose works can be lacking in psychological or philosophical heft. Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, however, is Neil Gaiman, an author who consistently displays a sharp ear for both craft and reader appeal. Gaiman not only crafts well-structured, entertaining stories, but he uses exquisite prose to both build captivating, fantastical worlds, and unpretentiously communicate profound and complex ideas. Without question, no other work of his is a better display of his immense skill than his magnum opus “American Gods,” in which Gaiman draws from a huge wealth of knowledge, blending the great myths of dozens of cultures to create what is both a tale of inexhaustible entertainment value and a thought-provoking social critique of the highest intellectual calibre.

After a brief, but intense stay in a state penitentiary, Shadow Moon is looking forward to finally regaining his freedom, and restarting his life with his wife Laura, but a few days before he is to be released, Shadow learns that Laura and his best friend have been killed in a car crash, with no other options, Shadow reluctantly leaves prison. On the plane ride to Laura’s funeral, Shadow finds himself seated next to the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, a self-proclaimed King of America, who offers Shadow a job as his right-hand man on a mission of supreme importance. Shadow accepts and finds himself accompanying Wednesday as he travels across the United States, communing with individuals as bizarre as him, all the while being pursued by mysterious goons. Shadow quickly learns the truth: Wednesday is an incarnation of the Norse god Odin, and that he, like the strange people with which he has been associating, is a manifestation of the belief immigrants to America had in their native gods. As Centuries roll by, and belief in them wanes, the old gods find themselves replaced by the new gods of media, industry, and technology, who, by the time Shadow finds himself involved, have set out to destroy the old gods once and for all.

In the hands of a less skilled artist, an idea such as “American Gods” would be reduced to mindless pulp entertainment, but Gaiman’s novel is able to transcend the tacky trappings of genre fiction, due to his subtle ability to inject profundity into the story, as well as his excellent characterization skills. The novel’s success is due in large part to how effectively the narrative  is grounded around people. Gaiman makes Shadow an easy character with which to empathize: he loses his freedom, then once his freedom has been restored, the one thing he has desired for years, his wife, is taken away from him, leaving him adrift, desperate, with no choice but to take Wednesday up on his offer. Shadow is an everyman, he’s certainly not what could be considered a hero, in that, he doesn’t feel himself guided by some higher purpose, but he’s not an evil person either – true, Shadow is a convicted felon, but the crime he committed was a result of poor judgement, and not a desire to cause harm – he is simply a person, doing the best he can with what life has dealt him, something to which we can all relate. It is through our identification with Shadow that we can best understand the novel’s premise, for he is, in a sense, a representation of how America is portrayed in the novel. As Mr. Wednesday says, “This is the one country in the world … that worries about what it is … the rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique (Gaiman, p. 150).'” Unlike the countries from which immigrants originate, America has no national lore, no common mythology which unites her citizens and gives them grounding in the past, and it is because of this, Gaiman seems to be saying to us, that America has never been comfortable with itself. Shadow lost his mother when he was a teenager, and never knew his father, so for most of his life, he has no clear narrative about who he is, no notion of what his roots are, and nothing to bind him to any place of security. Shadow’s travels across America, therefore, become a spiritual journey for him: in experiencing an aspect of American life of which he was previously unaware, he gains a newly found appreciation for the complexity of his country and is better equipped to move forward in his life.    

Most of Gaiman’s works are, at their heart, stories about stories, and “American Gods” is the purest example of this sentiment. The novel understands that America is not a single story, but rather one synthesized from countless other stories, all intertwining, overlapping, and branching off of one another only to come crashing back together. Gaiman illustrates this beautifully in the short stories entitled “Coming to America,” which Gaiman places in between chapters, explaining how some of the deities which populate America came to the country. These are some of my favorite parts of the novel, as they add a delicious richness to the narrative; they make the world of the novel feel more complete, showing the reader that there is more to this story than what’s going on with Shadow. Such immersive and multi-dimensional storytelling is enlightening as well as entertaining, in that, it communicates the grander intellectual themes of the novel in a way that could not be done through Shadow’s travels with Wednesday. The relationship between the world in-which Shadow grew up, and the parallel world Wednesday introduces him to, is similar to that between the sanitized version of our history, and the oft-overlooked truth. One story begins: “The important thing to understand about American history … is that it is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for the children or the easily bored … the American colonies were as much a dumping ground as an escape, a forgetting place (Gaiman, p. 121)” This specific passage is taken from a story about a young Irish woman, who is credited for bringing Celtic legends about fairy folk to America, as she travels back and forth between the Old and New worlds, trying to outrun her criminal past. This tale is meant as a subversion of the traditional narrative of how the original British colonies evolved into the United States. We like to think that the first European settlers to our country were heroic explorers, godly, industrious people, bringing civilization to an uncivilized continent, and while many of them were, a large number of them came here because they had no choice: criminals seeking forgiveness for their crimes, refugees with nowhere else to call home, misfits who had been rejected by their home country. Then, of course, there are those who were brought here as property. In another, much more grim story, we learn of the journey of twin slaves, who, through a lifetime of suffering, reminds us that our nation, no matter how great it is, cost us an immense human price to build. In these tales and the larger narrative of the novel, we come to the startling realization, that the accepted version of our history is nothing but a watered down concoction we force ourselves to swallow, so as to spare ourselves from confronting the ugly truth about our country.

Neil Gaiman achieves the kind of balance that most authors can only dream of, his works are entertaining, but not pandering, thoughtful and intelligent, but not overly intellectual, experimental, but not inaccessible. “American Gods” is a masterpiece of modern popular literature, capable of enlightening us about the true nature of our country, and well deserving of its status as a modern classic.