Review Of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Mary” (1926)

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Vladimir Nabokov's Mary (1926)

Vladimir Nabokov’s Mary (1926)

Mary, a solid first novel, presages all that’s good and bad with Vladimir Nabokov’s career. At a bit over 100 pages, it’s a short book, and this really works to Nabokov’s advantage. After all, his books — I’m thinking of the autobiography, Pale Fire, and Lolita in particular — are awash in pointless details, overlong scenes, and the occasional cliché. Ironically, many readers praise Nabokov for all these faults, since Nabokov himself was in love with tedium and closed to new ideas, bragging that his ideal editor would only rework a misplaced semicolon, or apologetically suggest a nipped comma, and nothing else. As he says in a taped interview about Lolita, in response to queries about the novel’s “ideas” (which, by the way, turned him off, hence the intellectual dearth in much of his writing), “I don’t want to touch hearts; I don’t even want to touch minds. What I want to produce is really that little sob in the spine of the artist’s reader…”

As a kid, it was great to see such confidence, especially from a writer with talent, toying with ideas indefensible, pouting through bold non-sequiturs, and gritting his teeth at ‘philistines.’ I was surprised, then, to finally see the interview on-screen a few years back, and was shocked at how incredibly different Nabokov was in real life. Obviously, he spent so much time thinking about what his own smirk looked like, that he forgot to prep himself for a world of others — other people, other values, and yes, other, more imaginative ideas than his own. The body language, stuttering, and the fact that he refused to do an unscripted, face-to-face interview (he read from index cards) all point to a great personal insecurity, especially since it’s so hard for Nabokov — or anyone, really — to defend his exaggerated aesthetic positions, off the cuff. As he’s goaded off the chair and to the couch by some (unscripted?) questions, you’re left with that last image forcing through the air — a sob in the spine of the reader. It’s silly, awkward, and it, along with the interview itself, is a good summary of Nabokov’s art: always “reaching,” often in weird, contrived ways, but never quite grasping.

Thus, it’s interesting to look at his earlier fiction, which was, perhaps, from a time before his hatred towards themes, depth, or things of cultural import, for Mary lacks a few Nabokovian faults in its greater control over his unwieldy, hyperbolic flourishes — the very lack Vladimir Nabokov complains of in the foreword. And although Mary is not a great book, it has enough solid or even good material to recommend it to enthusiasts. As noted, its length forced Nabokov to concision, and focusing on the disconnect between Bolshevik and pre-revolutionary Russia invites depth and an interesting, surreal quality to many passages. The plot is also much more straightforward than in later novels, which, in Nabokov’s case, is a plus, since … Continue reading →

Review Of Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred”

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Octavia E. Butler's Kindred

Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a bunch of young adult literature. No, it’s not really art, but in most cases, that’s acceptable, as it has no pretense to anything higher than functional and didactic storytelling for kids. The plots are simple, the symbolism obvious, the moralizing heavy-handed, and the purpose, clear. Students learn something (although it has little to do with English) and, in the hands of a creative instructor, can be forced to think about it in radical ways, beyond the scope of the typically insipid ‘lessons’ such books offer. All of this makes me wonder about the intrinsic value of books like Kindred, which is essentially a kid’s book disguised as a serious work of art. In brief, it’s not a good novel, but it at least ensures good criticism, for it attempts many things and does them badly — a hallmark, I suspect, of teen books in general. Trash like Gayl Jones’s The Healing, for example, are so utterly devoid of art or idea, maundering around banal, plotless, and lazy, all-describing inner thought, that detailed criticism is gratuitous, while Kindred is, by comparison, a failure with some good ideas lost to poor execution. It’s more instructive to look at these well-intentioned failures as there’s something to learn here.

A very obvious problem is the treatment of ideas. Butler handles her themes so didactically and without nuance that Kindred simply can’t be real literature, only functional, moralizing prose. All it says of slavery, relationships, and racism is not only unoriginal, but banal and expected, as if it’s a text designed to socialize the reader into mainstream thinking on these topics. Again, think kids’ lit. A novel of sci-fi aspirations, it really isn’t, since the mechanism of nor reason for its only sci-fi element, time travel, isn’t explained, nor serves any real logical purpose, except, perhaps, as an excuse for the story. It’s a minor flaw, one that even great works could have, but given all the other problems here, it’s difficult to overlook. The plot revolves around a black woman free of personality named Dana, her obliviously white writer-husband Kevin, and Rufus, a stupid, one-dimensional white boy from the antebellum South whom Dana repeatedly saves from death. Dana, a struggling writer in the 1970s, disappears into the South for hours, days, or months every time Rufus is in danger, while her body, in this world, is unconscious for no more than several minutes at a time. She returns to her apartment precisely when her own life is threatened. Sometimes, she’s able to take Kevin with her by holding on to him once the dizziness sets in. She is disappointed every time, however, as Rufus, with whom she develops a motherly (but mostly unexplored) relationship, didactically grows into a violent, insensitive product of his era. Note the rich potential in these ideas and how a talented writer can shape them into profound art. Butler is not that writer, at … Continue reading →

Review Of Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage”

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Charles Johnson's Middle Passage (1990)

Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990)

Although Middle Passage is one of the greatest novels ever written, it really wasn’t supposed to be, as Charles Johnson has the perfect set-up for dull PC bathos. The plot, the characters, and many of its ideas all imply cliché and utter failure in imitation of other failures. Just consider the synopsis and you’ll see what I mean. Rutherford Calhoun, a black New Orleans rascal and ex-slave, spends his days gambling, drinking, and accumulating debt. To avoid trouble and cut ties with his fat, religious, and pristine girlfriend, Isadora, he becomes a stowaway on what turns out to be a slave ship, the Republic. He has a transformative experience along the Middle Passage, returns home a changed man, defeats his enemies, and marries his now-slim and beautiful lover. It sounds disastrous, but it’s precisely how Johnson subverts these clichés and expectations that makes the novel so great. All details are calculated, the dialogue is rich and philosophical, and descriptions are full of humor, wit, and evocation appropriate to the scene and overall text. Nothing is forced or out of place. That Johnson veers so close to platitude and avoids it shows he’s conscious of what makes good writing. And that this is not Johnson’s first but second great novel (the first being Oxherding Tale) means he’s simply one of the best writers you’ll ever read.

The only ‘truly’ (i.e., prototypically) dense and complex character in Middle Passage is Rutherford. And this is not criticism. I use the word ‘truly’ with hesitation because there’s more than one way to create compelling characters, much less compelling books which may or may not have prototypical characterization. Other characters, however, do not necessarily grow, at least not in Rutherford’s varied and ambiguous directions. Again, this is not criticism, for at the very least, other characters are great archetypes, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, who are stand-ins for unique ideas and serve clever counterpoints to Rutherford, who is prototypical, in that he’s unique, interesting, likable, has complex motives and behavior, and grows. He’s extraordinarily observant and educated, his own ideas playing off of the archetypes’, all of which is far beyond what’s expected of a former slave. As he experiences his terrifying ordeal, he changes, subtly criticizing himself via juxtapositions of scene and dialogue even he isn’t aware of. For example, although he complains of Jackson’s (his brother) “betrayal,” it’s eventually revealed this was nothing more than convincing their ex-Master, Chandler, to share all property equally with the slaves, rather than giving it to the brothers, for Jackson, in a beautiful, philosophical, and quotable speech on property and ownership, argues they are educated, healthy, and thus need less:

I know Rutherford has thought about this too. But it don’t seem right to ask for myself. I could ask for land, but how could any man, even you, sir, own something like those trees outside? Or take that pitcher there. It’s a fine thing, sure it is now, … Continue reading →

Review Of Jessica Schneider’s “Quick With Flies”

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Jessica Schneider's Quick With Flies (2013)

Jessica Schneider’s Quick With Flies (2013)

[You can purchase Jessica Schneider’s Quick With Flies via Amazon, and access her personal website here.]

“I hope it goes beyond race. You’re trying to narrow it down to race. Yes, race is involved in it, but it’s not entirely about that. [As for the subject,] everyone’s an adult here. They know how to deal with it.”

– Steve McQueen on 12 Years A Slave

“Maybe it’s better to not inconveniently speak of certain things you know others will disagree with, for the sake of harmony. Perhaps we shouldn’t speak at all then, and leave it to silence to make the decision, which could be an ugly thing. Silence is ugly, for it meant a death of the hope to be understood…What would be left, then, to feel a motivation for, if everything is already how it is supposed to be: uncorrected? I did not know how to answer these questions, and it was these very questions that succeeded well in taking up my nights, void of sleep or dream, wondering if I was just destroying my own well-being for thinking any of this at all. Where were we to arrive? I couldn’t say, other than me wanting something to change, to end, or to begin. And it is with this thought and want that would enable me to someday begin.”

– Jessica Schneider, Quick With Flies

Last week, I was able to catch Steve McQueen’s latest film, 12 Years A Slave, but left the movie theater a bit “down.” It wasn’t because of the film, itself — at least, not really. It wasn’t a mood, or some vagary of weather. The fact is, I’ve always felt a little sad walking through a movie theater, and sadder, still, walking out. Inside, I’d hear all sorts of comments about the film, which missed the point or outright damned it to stereotype in that half-empty room. Outside, parents walked around with their kids, who yelled for the latest blockbuster as the parents smiled, perhaps remembering how they, too, once demanded the same exact thing, and knew no road, no exception, now, but to give the same to their own kids, as the way of the world. I was sad, I guess, because of the fatalism, that people could do so much more, if they’d only want to. Yet, watching what goes on in movie theaters, and — what’s often worse — coming home to read what others have written about these movies shows that they don’t, and that the word “want,” said so casually, so abstractly, above, is little more, I guess, than a reflection of my own desires.

Then, there’s Jessica Schneider’s early novel, Quick With Flies, published by Omniversica Press at Amazon.com. I wonder, sometimes, what it would be as a film. More often, however, I wonder what people will (and will not) say about it. For while 12 Years A Slave is precisely about alienation, loneliness, nature, and … Continue reading →

Review Of Steven Pinker’s “The Sense Of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide To Writing In The 21st Century”

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Steven Pinker Sense Of Style

Steven Pinker on the written aesthetic.

Now, to be sure, I have never had much use for style guides. Yes, there was all the studying for the writing portion of the SAT, years ago, which required lots of rule-learning and — even worse — the application of said rules to poorly-written ‘answers’ that were anything but right. Yes, I’d been assigned the oft-banal Strunk & White’s Elements Of Style in college courses, and have, out of curiosity, perused a number of similar guides not only across form and genre (prose, poetry, non-fiction, sci-fi, grammar) but multiple languages, as well, just to see how the rest of the world, well, merely hypothesizes the sorts of things that are in fact REAL to me. For instance, I still recall reading Orson Scott Card’s How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy, and finding — even as a 10 year old with a desire to impart stories — the thing too restrictive for anyone but the worst writers, to whom issues of mechanics and advice re: ‘world-building’ might narrowly apply.

Thus, I was both intrigued and a little alarmed when I read the title of Steven Pinker’s new book. Now, don’t get me wrong. While admittedly a very good writer with MANY interesting ideas across the board, Steven Pinker is a thinking academic (as opposed an academic thinker!), first, and has not, in his occasional comments on the topic, shown any deeper understanding of the arts. Yes, he’s constructed some great arguments, and pointedly done away with scientific fraud within the clarion of a mere sentence or two, but that does not really lend itself to art criticism. This is because the wisdom (not ‘knowledge’) immanent to recognizing a great poem, or the odd assortment of skills and luck that goes into differentiating a good from bad metaphor is nigh-indefinable. In short, while true creativity might be easy to quantify, if one merely KNOWS how to evaluate the works, themselves, its source in most cases isn’t. This means that no intellect, personal background, type, or force of character guarantees success in this endeavor, and Pinker’s book, to its credit, does not pretend otherwise.

Before getting into the book’s negatives, however, one must first say what it does right. Although it is easily the worst of the 3 or 4 books of his that I’ve read, The Sense Of Style is also, unsurprisingly, the best style guide that I’ve ever read. This is because it simply drops a few key hints re: usage and style, combs over the important historical trends as a kind of guideline, and thus allows the reader — at least for the most part — to draw his own conclusions on aesthetic matters, keeping the long view in mind and minimizing the least defensible stylistic errors. Too often, style guides are bogged down by dull proscriptive rules that don’t give a damn for rhythm, music, ambiguity, and subtleties of meaning that, in the end, do FAR more … Continue reading →