Monday, March 30, 2009

Book 7 – Breakfast At Tiffany’s

By Truman Capote

Never read any Capote before, so this famous little novella made a nice introduction.

It’s a light, straightforward tale about a young woman who transforms herself from a country hick to a Manhattan party girl. She’s constantly trying to run away from her past while struggling to find her own life. Written in 1958 yet set in the late 1940’s, the novel really encapsulated a feeling, time and place. Capote also brings to life the upper east side area where the characters live a particular modern lifestyle that probably doesn’t exist anymore.

I think I would’ve loved this book as a girl, as it’s a bit like a post-war Sex and the City. But reading it at this point in my life, I can see how Holly Golightly, as a young woman with an unconventional lifestyle and lack of options, represent some of the social hurdles Capote had to probably contend with, while at the same time, Holly’s desire for freedom and independence embodies some of his ideals as well.

Although much as been made about the narrator, I really did not have the sense that “Fred” was gay. Whatever I missed it was probably very subtle. I mean the guy seems obsessed about Holly, keeping tabs of her comings and goings, and at least a couple times reveals that he’s in love with her. He seems like a typically introverted straight guy to me! But then again, one could also say that Andy Warhol actually fell head over heels for Edie Sedgewick, in his own kind of way!

A disquieting loneliness came into my life, but it induced no hunger for friends of longer acquaintance: they seemed now like a salt-free, sugarless diet. ~Truman Capote

Friday, March 20, 2009

Book 6 – Wuthering Heights

By Emily Brontë

When I was in university, I studied Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, loved it, then sought out sister Emily’s famous novel, but ended up losing interest about a third way through. Now more than a dozen years later, I’m finally able to get through this ‘Slough of Despond’. Although I can’t say I like it more than I would have, I did end up having some appreciation for this rather remarkable novel.

Wuthering Heights is the name of the Yorkshire manor built upon the moorlands and home of the Earnshaw family. Isolated and far from the stir of society, the land is described by one of the narrators as the “perfect misanthropist’s Heaven”. The novel can also be described as such. For one thing, it’s far from a traditional love story, and rather, more like an anti-love story. Here you have Catherine and Heathcliff, two very emotionally imbalanced people, falling into an all-encompassing codependent relationship, yet you never see them declare their love for each other. All the romantic action is peripheral. Their thwarted love has dire consequences for their immediate family. Even their descendants fall into the same trap and suffer from the ridiculously foolish choices they make.

What bothered me at first about Wuthering Heights was how the main characters are so prone to their human follies. The men and women both are emotionally immature, manipulative, vindictive and given to histrionics. In some ways, I was glad there were barely any passages with Heathcliff and Catherine together because my eyes would’ve rolled out of their sockets!

At that earnest appeal he turned to her, looking absolutely desperate. His eyes wide, and wet at last, flashed fiercely on her; his breast heaved convulsively. An instant they held asunder, and then how they met I hardly saw, but Catherine made a spring, and he caught her, and they were locked in an embrace from which I thought my mistress would never be released alive: in fact, to my eyes, she seemed directly insensible. He flung himself into the nearest seat, and on my approaching hurriedly to ascertain if she had fainted, he gnashed at me, and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered her to him with greedy jealousy.

What Brontë is really good at is the clever dissection of social niceties. With the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights and neighbouring Thrushcross Grange removed from society and given free reign to develop anti-social tendencies galore, there is plenty of opportunity for misanthropic humour. Take the fascinatingly wicked Heathcliff, who becomes misanthropy incarnate once he thinks Catherine has rejected him, and is called by various characters such names as monster, devil, and fiend. He even tricks the nubile and naïve neighbour, Isabella, into marrying him, yet you feel it was really her fault for being so foolishly gullible when he tells the narrator:

She abandoned them under a delusion… picturing in me a hero of romance, and expecting unlimited indulgences from my chivalrous devotion. I can hardly regard her in the light of a rational creature, so obstinately has she persisted in forming a fabulous notion of my character, and acting on the false impressions she cherished.

Brontë pulls no punches in portraying Heathcliff as anti-christ and villain, ‘notable for savage sullenness and ferocity’. The guy gets downright emotionally and physically abusive after he takes over Wuthering Heights and its inhabitants, which apparently shocked readers at the time. I wouldn’t say that Brontë’s portrayal of Heathcliff is very three-dimensional, yet somehow he still comes across as a complex and sympathetic character.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the strapping and masculine self-made landowner ends up having a son who is a complete pansy. But it could also be the very unusual narrative structure, which is non-linear, involving multiple flashbacks and two narrators—Mr. Lockwood, who is renting Thrushcross Grange, and Ellen "Nelly" Dean, the ever so patient housekeeper. It is probably a conscious decision that the narrators are mentally and emotionally stable, so the reader can identify with them as a cool spectator, since all the other characters, past and present, seem so preoccupied in making their own train wrecks!

All in all, I can’t say I totally enjoyed the novel, as I couldn’t lose myself in the story as I did with Jane Eyre, and I was too busy rolling my eyes at every stupid decision and emotional outburst. It was still a very interesting read and I'm glad I finally read it.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Book 5 – The Music of Chance

By Paul Auster

Another weird and wonderful story from Paul Auster. My last encounter was The New York Trilogy, and I’m definitely seeing some recurring themes in his work, which is not necessarily a bad thing since Auster’s got the po-mo deconstruction of genre fiction down pat and he does it quite well.

Jim Nashe, an ordinary everyman kinda guy suddenly inherits some money from his father, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a boy. He leaves his job as a fireman, buys a new car and drives all over America, succumbing to a solipsistic addiction to long-distance driving. After several months, he realizes he’s going to run out of money soon if he doesn't do something about it. On a quiet road, he comes across a young card shark named Jack Pozzi who got away from a poker game gone sour. For Nashe it’s like a match made in heaven:

He would play the old man to Pozzi’s upstart, using the advantage he had in size and age to give off an aura of hard-earned wisdom, a steadiness that would counterbalance the kid’s nervous, impulsive manner.

Soon enough, Nashe offers to bankroll Pozzi’s next game with two wealthy eccentrics named Flower and Stone, who love poker, but are amateur players -- easy money. When Nashe and Pozzi arrive at the mansion, they learn that Flower and Stone became millionaires by winning the lottery. The card game becomes a contest of luck, and the outcome has very dire consequences for Nashe and Pozzi.

Like The NY Trilogy’s po-mo take on the detective genre, TMoC starts off with very familiar narrative motifs - man running away from his past, gambling buddies-on-the-road, poker game gone wrong – then at some point switches to something surreal and scary well after you’re suckered into what seems like an amusing and conventional story. Auster can also take a well-worn cliché, like a budding yet unlikely friendship, and make it work with solid thoughtful writing:

All during Pozzi’s reminiscences, Nashe had inevitably thought about his own boyhood, and the curious correspondence he found between their two lives had struck a chord in him: the early abandonment, the unexpected gift of money, the abiding anger. Once a man begins to recognize himself in another, he can no longer look on that person as a stranger. Like it or not, a bond is formed. Nashe understood the potential trap of such thinking, but at that point there was little he could do to prevent himself from feeling drawn to this lost and emaciated creature. The distance between them had suddenly narrowed.

Nothing's perfect however. There are times where Auster resorts to heavy-handed symbolism and trite existentialism, but for the most part, I found The Music of Chance quite a mesmerizing read. And I like the deceptively simple writing. There’s always this dreamy sense of foreboding, which compels me to keep reading, even though I know something meaningless and terrible is going to happen to the protagonist. Although his characters tend to be rather archetypal and cipher-like, Auster is also really good at making you immediately identify with them. When he describes Nashe on the road in his car, it just makes me want to jump in a car and drive to the hills:

He was a fixed point in a whirl of changes, a body poised in utter stillness as the world rushed through him and disappeared. The car became a sanctum of invulnerability, a refuge in which nothing could hurt him anymore. As long as he was driving, he carried no burdens, was unencumbered by even the slightest particle of his former life… After three or four months, he had only to enter the car to feel that he was coming loose from his body, that once he put his foot down on the gas and started driving, the music would carry him into a realm of weightlessness.
Empty roads were always preferable to crowded roads. They demanded fewer slackenings and decelerations, and because he did not have to pay attention to other cars, he could drive with the assurance that his thoughts would not be interrupted.

A good solid satisfying read! Apparently there is also a film adaptation from the mid-90's starring Mandy Patinkin and James Spader, two of the last actors I would picture playing the role of Nashe and Pozzi respectively, so I'm a little wary of check it out... unless it's really good, of course!