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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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Book Review: ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane,’ by Neil Gaiman.

image courtesy of: https://www.bookdepository.com/Ocean-at-End-Lane-Neil-Gaiman/9781472228420

A highly inventive story that will remind adults how terrifying childhood can be.

I find it ironic that science fiction and fantasy are often dismissed as cheap entertainment by literary elites, when the authors of these genres draw from a wider range of skills and inspirations than their “more serious” literary counterparts, in addition to often being as well educated as, and better read. Due to the style he injects into his works, Neil Gaiman is one of only a few genre authors to escape this stigma.  Like all of Gaiman’s works, ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ comfortably occupies multiple genres at once: horror, myth, character study, and can successfully blend them into a cohesive work which also incorporates fascinating insights about human nature.

While attending a funeral in his hometown, the novel’s unnamed narrator, now a middle-aged man, wanders away from his family and stumbles upon a pond which triggers a set of memories which are interesting to say the least. He remembers back to the year he turned seven, when he was a lonely young boy with a fondness for stories and kittens. At this time, his parents, strapped for cash, take in a South African opal miner as a boarder, who later goes missing, along with the family’s new Mini Cooper. After much searching, the Mini is found near a pond, with the man’s dead body inside. While the narrator’s father deals with the police, he goes to a nearby house where he meets Lettie Hempstock, a young girl from a mysterious family who claims to be older than the moon, and who tells him the pond is actually an ocean. While enjoying breakfast with the Hempstocks the boy is taken by Lettie to the otherworldly forest outside their home, where he watches Lettie battle a monstrous creature made of rags. That night, he goes home and discovers a worm has burrowed into his foot, he pulls it out, and a few days later his family hires Ursula Monkton, a live-in house keeper whose beauty and charm are only masks to her supernatural malevolence.

What I enjoy most about Gaiman as an author is the lack of embellishment there is to be found in his prose. While lush, flowing prose can be a joy to read, some authors will use it to compensate for the inadequacies of their work, smothering the inner beauty of a story. In the case of ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane,’ a minimalistic approach not only proves pleasurable on a stylistic level but contributes beautifully in terms of theme. Children, even ones as clever as our narrator, have a limited understanding of the world, and are easily hindered when trying to articulate their reactions to it, thus, use of simplistic language is perfect when recreating the voice of a child. What is more, our narrator’s description of the fantastical events have a hazy, dreamlike quality to them, that leads one to question whether or not what they are reading is actually true, or just a product of the narrator’s imagination. It is easy for adults to dismiss children for the wild imaginations, what Gaiman tries (and succeeds) to do with this book, is remind us how much children rely on their imaginations to make sense of things which frighten them. Children are small when everything else around them is big. To a child all adults are monsters, and everything seems older than the moon.

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Novels for Slytherins

Image courtesy of: https://www.deviantart.com/art/Slytherin-660086425

I know it’s been about a year since the previous installment of this series, but I’ve restarted the blog, and plan on posting at least once a week from now on.  

This week’s post focuses on perhaps the most misunderstood house at Hogwarts: Slytherin. Slytherin has for its sigil a silver snake on a green field, and attracts students who are ambitious, cunning, have a strong sense of fraternity, and who value strong leadership. Slytherins have a reputation for being prejudice against wizards who are of mixed magical and non-magical heritage, a trait which dates back to their founder, Salazar Slytherin, who left Hogwarts after disagreeing with the other three founders about allowing non-pure-blooded students to study at the school. The prejudice is completely irrational, not only because most wizarding families have at least some muggles in them, but because purity is in no way an accurate indication of a wizard’s talent or abilities. Hagrid remarks in “The Chamber of Secrets”: “Neville Longbottom’s pureblood, and he can barely remember which end of the cauldron goes right side up.” Slytherin is also known for producing more dark wizards than any of the other houses, one of which was Lord Voldemort himself. This doesn’t mean Slytherins are all evil, many have gone on to become great witches and wizards, like Horace Slughorn, the greatest potions master in Hogwarts’ history, mentor to Harry Potter’s mother Lily, and the only serpent to fight against the Dark Lord in the Battle of Hogwarts. Severus Snape, Slughorn’s successor as potion’s master, became hated by many after killing Albus Dumbledore at the end of “The Half Blood Prince,” but was later revealed to be a hero, secretly protecting Harry until the time came that Voldemort was able to be defeated. And then there’s Merlin. That’s right, Merlin, the most famous wizard of all time was not only a Slytherin, but was the prodigy of Salazar Slytherin himself.

 

“The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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image courtesy of: http://www.scribnermagazine.com/2015/04/in-my-younger-and-more-vulnerable-years-on-first-reading-the-great-gatsby/

The quintessential novel about the American dream, “The Great Gatsby” is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, who moves next door to the eccentric Jay Gatsby, whose lavish parties are the stuff of legend in the West Egg area of Long Island. The book’s themes of greed, ambition, and reinvention, fit hand-in-hand with Slytherin sensibilities, and Jay Gatsby practically bleeds silver and green.  One aspect of this novel that should have particular resonance with Slytherin fans, is its commentary about the relationship between old and new money. Jay, who desperately seeks the lovely Daisy Buchanan, has spent a lifetime trying to achieve the wealth and status that will make him worthy of her. While the money he earns affords him many decadent luxuries, the one thing he will never be able to buy is the prestige and respect that only those born into high society enjoy. We find an interesting parallel in the prejudice shown to Jay by his blue blooded neighbors, and superior attitude pure blooded Slytherins have over their classmates of mixed heritage.    

 

“The Picture of Dorian Grey,” by Oscar Wilde

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image courtesy of: https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-picture-of-dorian-gray/oscar-wilde/9781435129757

Another short work, Wilde’s classic is both a terrifying gothic tale and a celebration of the decadence movement which dominated British high society in the late nineteenth century. This novel’s characters rebel against the romantic and natural, fixating themselves with the superficial, those aspects of life which arouse the senses, but don’t quite satisfy. The plot concerns Dorian Grey, a young man blessed with exceptional beauty, who sells his soul so as to remain young forever.  I’ve chosen this novel because Slytherins, like Dorian and his friends, take great care to maintain their personal image, and are highly concerned with their social standing. Ravenclaws may enjoy the wit Wilde infuses into this work, but the insightful anecdotes about marriage, class, and art will have an undeniable appeal to Serpents.     

 

“The Lies of Locke Lamora,” by Scott Lynch

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image courtesy of: http://camorr.wikia.com/wiki/The_Lies_of_Locke_Lamora

The first installment in Scott Lynch’s masterpiece fantasy series is too intricately constructed to sum up in a paragraph, but I’ll do my best. The story is set in Camorr, a fantastical version of Renaissance Venice, where corruption is law, and thieves hold the true power; a place where only those with the longest knives and the sharpest wits can survive and thrive – basically, it’s a city run by Slytherins, for Slytherins.  Our “heroes” are the Gentleman Bastards, a gang of elite thieves who have amassed a fortune conning Camorr’s well-to-do out of their riches. The novel’s structure is positively brilliant, intercutting scenes of the Bastards planning their most ambitious heist yet, with transformative events in their lives, as-well-as several compelling episodes in Camorr’s history.  While the fiendish intricacies of the Bastard’s plots will garner the applause of any self-respecting serpent, it’s the fierce sense of brotherhood shared by Locke and his friends that will make this a compelling read.

 

“The Magicians,” by Lev Grossman

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image courtesy of: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/magicians-lev-grossman/1100309808

I don’t like putting two fantasy novels in the same entry, but this is just such a perfect fit for the house of the cunning and ambitious. Part parody, part adventure, part exploration of the existential crises of heroism, this first installment in a trilogy centers around Brakebills, secret university in upstate New York, where those of the highest intellectual caliber are taught the secrets of magic – not the soft and cuddly magic of your childhood adventure stories, but real magic, the kind of stuff that would make Voldemort shit his robes. Over five psychologically trying years, we see Quentin Coldwater and his emotionally disaffected classmates repeatedly try to out do each other, as they learn increasingly powerful and complex forms of magic, for no apparent reason other than to know they are better than everyone else in their class, taking breaks only to engage wanton Hedonism. Basically, it’s like if  Hogwarts were a university, and all the students were hard-drinking sex-crazed Slytherins.    

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The Immigrant Experience and Father-Son Dynamics In “Drown.”

Junot Diaz’s “Drown” is unique among contemporary American literature, in that it captures a facet of American life that many prominent authors had previously overlooked, the experience of the Hispanic-American immigrant.Through the eyes of Yunior and his family, we gain first hand experience of a minority family  attempting assimilation into American life, and the economic, social, and cultural struggles intrinsic to that experience. The most profound and fascinating aspect of this struggle can be seen in the dueling character arcs of Yunior, and his father, Ramon. Through observing the dynamic of their relationship, readers can gain insight into the alienating aspects of materialism, the immigrant experience, and  the so-called American Dream.

Ironically, the beginning of the de las Casas family’s journey in the United States is captured in “Drown’s” final story, “Negocios,” which chronicles the nine years Ramon spent in the United States, preparing to bring his family over. The story briefly takes place in the Dominican Republic, during which time we get a sense of what kind of man Ramon is. Before he gets his visa, Ramon’s wife discovers his extramarital affair, and throws him out of the house. Shortly afterwards, he goes to his father-in-law asking for money, and lies to him about his infidelity: “Come home, and be good to her.” His father-in-law tells him. “Don’t yell. Don’t hit the children. I’ll tell her you are leaving soon. That will help smooth things between the two of you (Drown, p. 165).” Ramon lingers at the house:

“In a house as loud as ours one woman’s silence was a serious thing. Papi slouched for about a month, taking us to kung fu movies we couldn’t understand and drilling into us how much we’d miss him.  He’d hover around Mami while she checked our hair for lice, wanting to be nearby the instant he cracked and begged him to stay (Drown, p. 166).” Already we see that Ramon has a dysfunctional marriage, playing mind games with his wife, sadistically anticipating her to show her weakness, and even attempting to  pit his children against her.

Ramon does leave eventually, and once in the United States, endures a string of difficult jobs and uncomfortable living arrangements. He gets beaten up, and swindled out of (what is for him) a large amount of money. It could be considered admirable that Ramon puts himself through so much to support his family, and one might think his struggles would have a humbling effect, but they only augment the more volatile aspects of his personality: his anger, his lustfulness, his greed; upon reunion with his wife and children, Ramon is a changed man, psychologically and emotionally alienated from, and it is this alienation that shapes his relationship with Yunior, as-well-as their separate experiences with America.    

The story “Fiesta 1980” takes place after Yunior has been in the United States for three years, on a night the family is going to a party in the Bronx being thrown by Yunior’s aunt. Throughout the course of the story, Yunior is harshly disciplined by his father, and gets into an altercation with one of his cousins. But the greatest conflict Yunior seems to have is with his father’s Volkswagen Van: “Brand-new, lime-green and bought to impress. Oh, we were impressed, but me, every time I was in that VW and Papi went above twenty miles an hour, I vomited (Drown, p. 27).”  Yunior’s mother attributes his sickness with the van’s funny-looking upholstery, but it is likely something deeper than that.

Ramon,  had left for the United States when Yunior was only a baby, so for all of Yunior’s life, the two of them had no relationship, and it would not be a stretch to say this gave Yunior abandonment issues.  What is more, we learn that while away from his family, Ramon has begun another extramarital affair with a Puerto Rican woman, and even takes Yunior  to visit her in Volkswagen. When Yunior gets in the car, he can’t help but think of his father’s deceitful behavior towards his mother. Further, Ramon bought the Volkswagen as a way of peacocking, a method of assimilation of into America’s culture of conspicuous consumption. In Yunior’s mind, the two become synthesized, turning the van into a symbol of America and all the negativity moving there has injected into his life, with his car-sickness serving as a physical response – he rejects America, and America rejects him. In subsequent stories of “Drown,” we see how profoundly this affects Yunior’s character, even if he is not aware of it himself.

In “Aurora,” “Boyfriend,” and “Edison, New Jersey,” we see Yunior as a teenager, on the cusp of manhood, and, like his father before him, attempting to achieve all the material life in America. But rather than work honestly, Yunior chooses the life of a criminal, dealing drugs with his friend, Cut. It’s not an easy way to go about making money, as Yunior finds, and interestingly, the way he talks about it is not dissimilar from how a legitimate businessman would describe their work:

“I have friends in Perth Amboy and new brunswick who tell me they deal to whole families, from the grandparents down to the fourth-graders. Things around here aren’t like that yet, but more kids are dealing and bigger crews are coming in from out of town, relatives of folks who live here. We’re still making mad paper but it’s harder now, Cut’s already been sliced once and me, I’m thinking it’s time to grow, to incorporate but Cut says, Fuck no. The smaller the better (Drown, p. 51).”

He talks about the challenges of maintaining revenue and dealing with competition, and his ambitions to grow his business. Yunior exhibits the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that has propelled many immigrants like him to success, the only thing that makes him different is his chosen path to success. Does this have anything to do with Yunior’s relationship with Ramon? Probably. Yunior and Ramon both want access to the American dream of prosperity and financial independence, however, the path each embarks upon is the antithesis of the other’s: Ramon by fighting his way through the system, Yunior by going around it. While Yunior’s experience parallels that of many racial and ethnic minorities, it has special significance for his character. Living through an entire childhood without him fostered in Yunior a sense of distrust and resentment towards Ramon that made it impossible for him to form a proper bond with his father. Further, the embittered attitude Ramon developed after spending nine years doing back-breaking labor to provide for his family caused Yunior to adopt negative emotions toward such work – being a drug dealer is more than a means for Yunior to make money, it’s an act of rebellion, both against the father that abandoned him, and the country that rejected him.

Even when Yunior gets an honest job (delivering and assembling pool tables), he uses it as an opportunity to reap petty vengeance against the establishment, sneaking around the homes of his wealthy customers and wreaking whatever small havoc he can:

“If the customer has been good and tipped well, we call it even and leave. If the customer has been an ass – maybe they yelled, maybe they let their kids throw golf balls at us – I ask for the bathroom … excuse me, I say. I let them show me the way to the bathroom (usually I already know) and once the door is shut I cram bubble bath drops into my pockets and throw fist-sized wads of toilet paper into the toilet. I take a dump if I can leave that for them (Drown, p. 123).”

During Yunior’s money-making endeavours, we also observe how he conducts himself in his relationships with women. One relationship is with the title character of the story “Aurora,” the other is with a woman simply referred to as “Girlfriend.” Neither relationship is functional. Yunior and Aurora fight constantly, both verbally and physically, cheat on each other – Aurora once with Cut, while Yunior is in the same room, and yet remain fiercely codependent on each other:

“We hurt each other too well to let it drop. She breaks everything I own, yells at me like it might change something, tries to slam doors on my fingers. When she wants me to promise her a love that’s never been seen anywhere I think about other girls (Drown, p. 52).”

Yunior’s relationship with Aurora bares a striking resemblance to that of his parents’, and as such reveals him to be more like his father than he would like to think. It’s obvious Yunior and Aurora don’t like each other: it would be more conducive to psychological (and physical) well being of both of them to simply break up, but they stay together out of a mutual addiction to the rush being in constant conflict gives them. Like Ramon, Yunior has a volatile temper, and a cavalier attitude about fidelity within relationships. It is not surprising this is the relationship Yunior creates for himself, considering that it is the only kind he was exposed to growing up. No matter how hard Yunior tried to rebel against him,  his father had an indelible and undeniable mark on the man he became.

Yunior finds himself in a dilemma that all young men – and especially sons of immigrants to America – have experienced, trying to forge your own identity, while also making peace with your family’s heritage. A very intriguing passage from “Edison, New Jersey” can illuminate this aspect of Yunior’s character:        

“The clothes I’m sure this guy tears from her when they both get home from work – the chokers, the rayon skirts from the Warehouse, the lingerie – I bought with stolen money and I’m glad that none of it was earned straining my back against hundreds of pounds of rock. I’m glad for that (Drown, p. 126).”

Here, Yunior is referring to Girlfriend, with whom he began his relationship after having spent some time listening in on her interactions with her previous boyfriend – whom Yunior refers to simply as “Boyfriend” – through the wall between their adjacent apartments. Their relationship slowly deteriorates, and girlfriend leaves Yunior for a white man. One may wonder if the way Yunior talks about Girlfriend in the above passage is similar to how Ramon may have thought of his wife and children while struggling to forge a foothold in the United States; if he lamented the suffering he subjected himself to for the sake of what he may have perceived to be an ungrateful family. But while they share this feeling about the women in their lives, Yunior is still manages to forge an identity for himself within it by delegitimizing the worth of the material goods he has given to his woman as gifts.  

Junot Diaz’s “Drown” sheds light on a demographic typically ignored by American culture, in  this way, it is a work of impressive creativity and innovation. That said, it should also be considered a most American work of fiction, as it explores ideas and themes which the country’s writers have for generations: the pursuit of success, the struggle to forge an identity of one’s own, and the feelings of alienation which are inherent in moving from one’s old home to an entirely new one. Due to their complexities, dissecting these themes is an intimidating endeavor; Diaz combats this by fostering an intimate relationship between readers and his narrator. Through Yunior’s eyes, we experience the breadth of the immigrant experience, and learn that no matter where a person comes from, there are certain parts of life that are universal, chief among them is the realization that, whether in spite of, or because of them, our parents play an immeasurably profound role in shaping who we become.

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Characterization inFlannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a tragically absurd, Southern Gothic tale, with characters that could indeed be described as cartoonish. The best example is the grandmother, who is a relic from a more innocent time in America’s history, heavily fixated on manners and proper presentation of one’s self; for the family’s road trip to Florida, she wears a fancy navy blue dress, with white lace on her collar and cuffs, and cloth violets pinned to her neckline, so that “in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once she was a lady.” Her choice of formal attire in an informal setting makes for an awkward contrast with the rest of her family, such as the children’s mother who wears slacks and a kerchief. Later, when the family stops at the Tower to eat, the Grandmother engages in a conversation with the establishment’s owner, Red Sammy Butts, wherein they discuss how unworthy people are of trust these days. “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust,” she said. “And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody.”

She is a parody of an elderly person, obsessed with pointing out the moral failings of the younger generations and how her generation was superior. Unfortunately for the family, the grandmother’s nostalgia is indirectly responsible for their murders at the hands of The Misfit and his gang. After passing a dirt road, she remembers an old plantation house she used to visit. The grandmother talks so joyously about the house that her grandchildren become enamored and beg their father to take them to see. After traveling down the road for some time, the grandmother realizes that the house she was thinking of was in Tennessee, not Georgia, where the family is. At that very moment, the grandmother’s cat escapes from its cage, and leaps onto the father, causing the accident that places them in The Misfit’s path.

I find the grandmother’s antiquated take on the world to be unsettling, particularly during her exchange with The Misfit. She recognizes him as the criminal who has been dominating the headlines and yet feels compelled to appeal to his sense of decency. “Listen,” the grandmother almost screamed, “I know you you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people.” She holds fast to her certitude about the power of a proper upbringing, even when she and her family are facing certain death. In this respect, The Misfit is her perfect counter, as he displays such a wanton disregard for politeness and decency, his characterization is as comically extreme as the grandmother’s, except he occupies the opposite end of the spectrum. The Misfit fully embraces his nihilism, saying after the grandmother advises that he seek forgiveness in religion: “Jesus was the only one that ever raised the dead, and He shouldn’t  have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if he didn’t then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house  or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.” O’Connor displays striking levels of creativity in this story;  by creating two characters with extreme opposing viewpoints and placing them in direct conflict with each other, readers are afforded a chance to bare witness to one of the most profound moral dialogues in American literature, with the grandmother representing the belief that proper behavior and faith are what holds society together, and The Bandit maintaining that morality is arbitrary, and that the best, most natural thing a person can do is embrace their base desires, regardless of how much damage is caused.It is a debate as relevant today as it was when O’Connor first wrote:  “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”  

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What Would a Rational Gryffindor Read?

Measure of Doubt

In the Harry Potter world, Ravenclaws are known for being the smart ones. That’s their thing. In fact, that was really all they were known for. In the books, each house could be boiled down to one or two words: Gryffindors are brave, Ravenclaws are smart, Slytherins are evil and/or racist, and Hufflepuffs are pathetic loyal. (Giving rise to this hilarious Second City mockery.)

But while reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, I realized that there’s actually quite a lot of potential for interesting reading in each house. Ravenclaws would be interested in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and mathematics; Gryffindors in combat, ethics, and democracy; Slytherins in persuasion, rhetoric, and political machination; and Hufflepuffs in productivity, happiness, and the game theory of cooperation.

And so, after much thought, I found myself knee-deep in my books recreating what a rationalist from each house would have on…

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4 Novels for Gryffindors

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This week’s post focuses on the house most prominently featured in the “Harry Potter” series: Gryffindor. The house of Harry Potter himself, Gryffindor has for its sigil a gold lion on a red field, and attracts students who are brave, adventurous, and have a strong sense of chivalry. Opinions on Gryffindors tend to very: some people admire them for their courage, and believe them to the pride of Hogwarts, others, especially Slytherins and Ravenclaws, often think of them as being reckless braggarts. Regardless, Gryffindor has produced its fair share of talented individuals, such as Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and Lily and James Potter, who founded the Order of the Phoenix. And of course, there’s Albus Dumbledore, the finest wizard of his generation, if not of all time, who defeated the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald in pitched combat, discovered the twelve uses of dragon’s blood, and befriended Nicolas Flamel, the creator of the Philosopher’s Stone. Dumbledore was also said to be the only person Lord Voldemort ever feared.

 

“White Fang” by Jack London

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Considered Jack London’s best novel, “White Fang,” takes place during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800s. The eponymous character is a part-dog, part-wolf hybrid, who is born wild, taken in by a native tribesman who trades him for whiskey to a man named Beauty Smith. Beauty Smith raises White Fang by lash and rod, beating him to build his aggression so he can be a cage fighter. White Fang is eventually rescued by the kindly Wheaton Scott, who takes him to his family farm, where he earns the respect of the community by fighting off an escaped criminal. I’ve chosen this for the Gryffindor list because I feel lions will enjoy how London immerses the reader in the danger and adventure of frontier life. In one scene after another, White Fang is confronted with the threats of his environment, and conquers them all with nothing but his guts, and steely animal instincts.

“The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer

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This is technically a piece of poetry, but Chaucer’s (unfinished) masterpiece is so filled the kind of epic adventures that Gryffindors love, that I just had to include it on the list. The main cast of characters including The Knight, The Wife of Bath, The Miller, The Summoner, The Pardoner, The Summoner, and many others are meant to represent a cross-section of medieval society. They are on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the martyr Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The group begins their journey at an inn, where the host proposes a contest: each pilgrim will tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. Whomever he judges to be the best storyteller will receive a meal at the inn, courtesy of the other pilgrims. Chivalrous lions will especially enjoy The Wife of Bath’s tale, about a knight in the time of King Arthur, who, as punishment for raping a woman, must travel the world to discover what it is women truly want.

“Atonement” by Ian McEwan

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Taking place in World War II era Britain, “Atonement” concerns three people, Robbie Turner, Cecilia Talis, and Briony Talis, Cecilia’s sister, and how their lives are affected by a single incident. One summer evening, Cecilia and Briony’s cousin is raped, and Briony reports Robbie as being responsible. Robbie is sent to prison, but manages to be released in exchange for joining the army. Cecilia is in love with Robbie, and so the two of them wind up hating Briony for falsely reporting Robbie to the police. As Gryffindors tend to be ruled by their hearts, I feel they will find it easy to empathize with Robbie and Cecilia’s intense emotional connection, as-well-as enjoy the sweeping scale of the novel.  

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens

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While Charles Dickens’s tale about the French revolution contains elements which appeal to all four houses, it is the story arc of Sydney Carton that places “A Tale of Two Cities” on the Gryffindor list. Sydney is in love with Lucie Manette, the daughter of Doctor Manette, who at the beginning of the novel, was freed from the Bastille after being imprisoned for eighteen years. Lucie is the embodiment of warmth and compassion – perfect Hufflepuff material – and uses her kindness to reawaken her father to the world after his torturous incarceration. She is also very beautiful. Unfortunately for Sydney, Lucie is in love with Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat wanted by the revolution, with whom Sydney shares an uncanny resemblance. After returning to France to free his imprisoned friend Gabelle, Charles is himself captured and sentenced to death. Compelled by his love for Lucie, Sydney volunteers to help break Charles out of prison, and take his place on the chopping block.

Sydney is a pathetic drunk at the beginning of the novel, by the end though, he has gained the ability to see beyond himself. Although it would be easy to let Charles be executed so as to have Lucie all to himself, Sydney knows that to truly love someone means being willing to make sacrifices for them … even if that means marching to your own death. It is the epitome of a chivalrous act, and it puts Sydney, and the book, firmly in the house of Godric Gryffindor.