That Obnoxious But Intoxicating Authorial Je Ne Sais Quoi

I’m pushing my way through Middlemarch these days. I read it maybe 10 years ago, and I’m having trouble remembering why I loved it so much. I have lots of observations (to come!), but I find myself scanning through a lot of it, honestly.

So! Before we delve into Middlemarch, let’s talk about something completely unrelated and not even tied to any specific book: that nameless thing that makes you know an author is a professional.

Karaoke

I went on a cruise awhile back, and as is my habit in such circumstances, I immersed myself fully in the karaoke scene.

aggretsuko with karaoke mike

Here’s a phenomenon anyone who’s been to a karaoke event will recognize: most people suck, but some singers absolutely have it.* If they do, you’ll know in the first three seconds.

The room will grow quiet upon these initial notes; people will look around at each other; and then, inevitably, they will all start shrieking.

*BTW, I am not one of these people who have it. But most will agree that I can do a perfectly acceptable rendition of CCR’s “Fortunate Son.”

Now, abrupt transition that will make sense in a second!

I think there’s a lot of emperor’s new clothes with literature, frankly. Plenty of poems by the layman, for instance, would be celebrated as pure genius if everyone thought they were by William Carlos Williams.

But if you’re in creative writing 101 and you submit “The Red Wheelbarrow” for workshop, you’ll get feedback like, “Simplistic—try adding things that make us care more about the wheelbarrow,” or, “Too much spacing, looks pretentious,” or, “Adjectives are just colors. Use more creative adjectives.”

Divas Are to Karaoke as Good Authors Are to Writing

Sometimes you pop open a book and on sentence one, that author just has it. You know this was a born author.

The thing that made me think of this was reading Richard Ford’s Independence Day. I opened it and immediately felt the karaoke feeling of stunned silence…and then the moment where you look at everyone else and go “WOOOOOOOO!”

As someone who thrives on breaking things like this down, I’m flummoxed. What is about Richard Ford that makes me think, “he’s got it!” and makes me think about someone like Margaret Atwood “she doesn’t”? (Shots fired, Atwoodians, I know! Come at me. But read The Peneolopian first, ugh.)

I’d love to really dive into this one day, but I don’t know how to point out aspects of the literary-karaoke-diva in a way that’s objective.

But at the same time, I feel like it’s possible for us all to be all connected in this, the way we’d be if we were on a cruise and Fontella Bass waltzed up and started belting out “Rescue Me.” Whether you like the song or not, you’d be like, “Oh, dang!” within the first few seconds.

Talent is a subjective thing—yet when someone’s really got it, we mostly agree. We just can’t pinpoint exactly what the line between has it and not quite is.

One day, I’ll figure out this je ne sais quoi for authors. When I do, I’ll let you know.

Rabbit Is Garbage

Well howdy! If you read my last post, you know I’ve come out of blogging retirement. And what better inspo to start than to voice my to complaints, which will surprise absolutely no one who’s made my acquaintance in real life.

First, some housekeeping. Folks, I have been reading, and it’s been glorious. I’ll talk more about this when I close up. If you’re an insomniac—and I knew this already, I just didn’t do it—reading is way better for your wee-hours soul than googling weird diets on your phone or scrolling through Instagram for four hours or doing way too much research the best dentists in your area.

There’s something calm about reading that pushes away that bloodshot-eyed tired mania and unease that comes with being up for hours while the rest of the world sleeps. Reading is almost like sleep, in fact. Your brain rests and goes somewhere else.

Well, until the book ends. Then you’ve got a blog post bursting out of you, full of all the thoughts you had about what was wrong with the book.

I jest, a little. I just finished reading Rabbit, Run, and the question I earnestly want to explore here is “What was John Updike thinking with all this?”

Ugh, author-focused reading is so passe, I know. But humor me. I mean, humor me in a second. First, let me humor you with a summary of what I read so you’re not totally in the dark.

WARNING: THIS WHOLE POST IS GOING TO BE FULL OF SEX BECAUSE THIS WHOLE BOOK IS FULL OF SEX. IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO HEAR ME RAMPAGE IN DETAIL ABOUT THE SEX IN THIS BOOK, JUST LOOK AT THIS NON-OFFENSIVE RABBIT FOR AWHILE AND THEN CLICK AWAY. AN OFFENSIVE RABBIT COMES AFTER.

A very important non-garbage rabbit.

Totally Objective Summary of Rabbit, Run, Done in Bullets!

  • Harry Angstrom, AKA Rabbit, decides that he’s too stifled by having a wife—who is about to give birth to his second child.
  • He decides to drive south. He needs to be free. Women, they cramp your STYLE, know what I’m sayin’? (Honestly, his wife does seem a bit awful at first, but wait until author Updike tells her history.)
  • Defeated by getting lost a bunch of times in these barbaric non-GPS days, he heads back home. Home-ish. He can’t bear to see his gross wife anymore, so he goes and finds his old basketball coach.
  • Has a weird time.
  • Goes on a blind double date the next night, ’cause hey, time to start fresh, right? What with the second baby due any minute?
  • Has another weird time.
  • Goes home with blind-date lady and has oddly antagonistic sex during which he switches violently back and forth between worshipful and abusive, which—bonus fact!—is a theme throughout all his relationships. Note: Rabbit insists she not use her diaphragm because he can just tell when someone uses one, and sex that’s not potentially life-ruining for his partner is such a turnoff for him.
  • Nonetheless, blind-date lady loves the sex. BTW, his wife did, too. All the women in the book want him.
  • Another bonus fact! I’m on the second book now, when he’s nearing middle age and is fat and bloaty and gross, but no worries! Women still all pant with desire for him. We will talk about this later. I warned you.
  • He sneaks into his family house the next day, grabs clothes, and decides to move in with blind-date lady without any discussion of this with said blind-date lady. She is cool with it because of course she is.
  • Blah blah blah.
  • He has an earnest friendship with a man while scheming on sleeping with his wife and while sexually harassing her. (But she wants it, of course. Sluts.)
  • He gets back with his wife when she gives birth; what a great guy.
  • Then he does explicit, HORRIFIC thing one night because his wife owes him for being so nice and coming back when she gave birth. I cannot even describe this here. I will not.
  • Naturally, he leaves his wife again shortly after. This causes her to go on a bender and accidentally drown the infant. That’s right.
  • He calls her a baby murder in front of everyone at the funeral…but don’t worry, he also generously forgives her! Wow.
  • Blah blah blah the miserable end.

The Big Question: What Is Updike’s Deal?

Here’s the thing. I read Lolita, man. I know an author can write an utterly abhorrent character, and that he can stare into that abyss until it stares back at him. I know an author doesn’t have to like his characters to bring them to life, to really get into their psyche. But Rabbit, Run was already a pretty long book.

Updike wrote four more of these Rabbit-centric books. FOUR. Big books.

Yes, it’s so passe to read a book with a mind toward the author—we did away with this form of criticism with Barthes and haven’t looked back.

But this isn’t an attempt to study the man behind the work as if he’s a god and we can unlock his doctrine if we study his text with enough holy fervor. I’m just curious.

How can anyone spend four books’ worth of time writing this character?

I want to understand.

I know I’ve been snarky up until this point, but please trust, dear Afterlife Mr. Updike, that I ask this without a hint of sarcasm. I genuinely want to know. What was so entrancing about this man? Are his struggles relatable? Do you see Rabbit as an everyman and you’re writing an everyman’s story? If so, how do you write with any compassion at all for mankind?

You would have to hate us all.

But I Dunno, You Say. Maybe Some People Find Rabbit Likeable, You Say.

After reading my summary, I’m sure you think of me as pretty jaded against the character. And no doubt I am. In fact, according to this dude in The Guardian, Rabbit is likable—yea, loveable.

I earnestly would like to understand what redeeming qualities he has that doesn’t lower the bar for “non-terrible human being” down to the pits of Hell.

Here are the arguments for him being likable, as I see it.

  • He seems to be attached to his children…you know, like every living thing on earth.
  • And then there’s the thing where he didn’t actually rape anyone, probably, kind of, depending on how you define rape—just a lot of your run-of-the-mill sexual assault.
  • He didn’t actually sleep with his friend’s wife, though he maybe could have (but maybe not and just imagined he was making this noble choice?)
  • And he did go marching into that hospital when his wife was giving birth, the whole time acting as if he was marching to his doom, resigning himself to this woman he hates.

this is fine

FINE, HE’S AWFUL

Okay, so please tell me I’ve convinced you that Rabbit is objectively horrible. You can’t argue with it. He’s just an abhorrent character all around.

And let’s further say that Updike hates him too. But here’s the thing. Updike can’t stop writing the character. He’s just entranced by the sheer vastness of his depravity, and it’s caused him to hate-compose these books. Hate-writing is a thing, right?

After all, Updike shows some compassion for the humans that are saddled with Rabbit in their lives. It’s really the chapters from his wife’s and his blind-date lover’s perspective that show how he’s ruined them. Updike writes them with empathy. And it’s those chapters that truly make you hate him.

So again, I ask why. Why, Updike, did you put so much of your time into writing this character?

Maybe These Book Are a Result of Hate-Writing, Dystopia-Channeling, and…?

I honestly doubt Updike liked Rabbit. I think he’d argue the book isn’t about that.

It’s more about wanting something you can’t have. That thing is the freedom to do whatever you feel like without consequences because this is AMERICA. From there, we watch Rabbit suffer the consequences of trying to make that true and then souring when it can’t be true.

I think Updike probably felt more like he was watching this unfold than creating the story. A kind of domestic, suburban dystopia, full of the despair of wanting to run but not being able to. He probably hated Rabbit, too.

BUT NO.

Okay, I tried to be reasonable just now. I tried to be quiet.

But I protest.

Even if my suspicion above is true, it doesn’t explain everything. Rabbit doesn’t face the consequences like he deserves to. Updike adds lines to his book that make us want to feel for Rabbit, talking about the emptiness and depression that haunt him, spouting line after line to elicit compassion for him despite his actions.

But his actions are too much. There’s no suffering that excuses this suffering inflicted on others.

…And Wish Fulfillment. Just a Touch of Wish Fulfillment.

Everyone in Rabbit’s life should desert him.

He is weak, mealy.

He is emotional without any grace.

He feels real human yearning for meaning, but then he turns ugly on all the people he encounters that could fill it with that meaning.

He says the worst things he can think of to people he has power over, and he cowers before those who intimidate him, harboring resentment to full-circle release it on those who he takes all his miserable life woes out on.

And that leads me to the last of the number of reasons why I think Updike continued to write Rabbit.

The undercurrent of all these books is this:

Women can’t resist this garbage person.

Why there’s so, SO much terrible sex and the ladies are all like “Yep, can’t live without it!” This whole book is pouring sex, to the point where I feel like I need a cigarette after reading it. And women want so bad to please him.

This feels to me like wish-fulfillment writing.

What is wish-fulfillment writing? I’m so glad you asked!

It’s when you’re an author and you write a character who either permanently or temporarily serves as a surrogate for you. Then, you make things happen to them that you wish would happen to you.

When do you see this? I’m so glad you asked!

You see it mostly when many male authors write sex scenes. (AHEM, PLEASE SEE: KEN FOLLETT). But there’s more to it here, in Updike’s book.

Specifically, It’s Unconditional-Love Wish Fulfillment

It’s not just sex Updike is writing about. Well, I mean, on the surface, the whole book is nothing but sex. But the reaction of the women makes me think that there’s a piece of Updike that wants to write a man that women love unconditionally.

He writes women that are all weak to Rabbit—cannot resist him, in fact—even though (1) it’s in their best interest, (2) the man is garbage and gross and pathetic and spiteful and all around hateable.

Does Updike wish he could be this man? Does he wish it enough to make these women all clones, all made of constant desire for him—er, I mean Rabbit?

Also, Violence

Apropos of nothing but worth mentioning, Rabbit vacillates wildly between wanting to smash the life out of and screw the life out of the women in his life. This is what bugs me most—this blending of murderous and sexual desire. It’s nightmarish.

This is how women die in real life by the hands of their partners—you can see it brewing in this book.

The Other Big Question: Why am I Reading This?

Uh. Well, ’cause two books in this quartet are in my Pulitzer journey and I wanted to read the whole series.

Also, honestly, I’m just hate-reading the books now, the way I suggested Updike was maybe hate-writing them. These books fuel me. After all, it brought me out of blogging retirement, didn’t it?

Stay tuned for Rabbit Redux, in which Updike discovers the C word! Good stuff!

Just kidding. I can’t write anymore about this. The taste in my mouth permeates my whole body.

“Hey Brah, Where You Been?”

Remember me?

I used to write academic-sounding turned review-sounding posts about books. I kept it clean, I kept it proper, and I kept it smart. And I probably kept it boring, honestly.

Then I founded a business, and it took all my time. I stopped reading, and I certainly stopped blogging.

I need a hiatus from that to rediscover what I want to do with my life.

So, for one thing, I’m back here, blogging about literature, with nothing professional left to prove. (But because of my business, what I do have is a whole bunch of knowledge about what makes blogs fun to read. Want to know more about that? Read everything I’ve done before on this blog and then do the opposite.)

New Amanda is raw Amanda. Raw Amanda still loves books. She thrives on analyzing books and talking about what makes them work and what doesn’t.

But now, it’ll be different. Raw Amanda isn’t diplomatic, professional, or clean-mouthed. I’m not looking for a job; I’m not looking to impress anyone. You’re going to hear me talking this stuff the way I really talk, in real life. I just want to share what I think in a way that’s entertaining and thought-provoking, and authentic.

And I have time to read now! OMG, time to read! Can you imagine?

Fainting lady

So that’s the update. Any y’all still around? Look for weekly updates, probably Thursdays or Fridays.

‘Sup.

I’m alive. But I sure as heck ain’t reading.

Well, that’s not true. The nature of what I do is that I’m always reading. But my life has been missing the kind of reading I’d blog about, and it’s sad.

I know lots of people fall off blogging and then start again, fall off, start again, ad infinitum. But seeing as my business revolves around how to do blogging right, I feel a bit like my personal blog is a dirty secret. Maybe I can play it up. “Hey clients, want to see how NOT to do the whole blogging thing? Check this out!”

But (1) I’m overbooked—which is not a complaint, but it does explain the lack of time for hobbies, and (2) like I said, I really haven’t had much material to discuss. Nonetheless, literature has my heart, and I thought I’d throw out some updates on that front here.

  1. I wouldn’t mind talking at some point of experience a story via video game. I don’t often play games other than phone goof-off stuff, like Jeopardy or Pokemon Go (yes, still). But I recently played the first Life is Strange game, and I’m working on the second as it comes out, chapter by chapter. And playing these is remarkably like reading a story. Now, speaking mainly of the first game, there were certainly issues. The dialogue was cringy lots of time, and the action plot of the story got a little ridiculous. But the core story was about a friendship, and it’s just beautiful. It reminds me of being a teenager so much–the despair, the recklessness, and the abandon with which you throw yourself into another person. Also, it passes the Bechdel test so hard that it practically negates it. The connection between the two main characters is so moving that some scenes brought me to tears. And it’s a lot less about playing the game than taking in the story. Interesting stuff. It makes me think about interactive novels and choose-your-own-adventures. The line between such things aren’t always cut and dried.
  2. We’re still listening to books on our car trips, though I don’t find that listening to books is conducive to thinking critically about them the way I often do while visually taking in words on a page. I wonder why that is. Anyway, we listened to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which I found very entertaining, if perhaps overly ambitious. And we’re now listening to…wait for it…The Goldfinch. Yep. I convinced Erik to give it a try, and he’s liking it. Not the way I like it. Which is “inappropriately.” No, but seriously, I love The Goldfinch just as much as I did on both of my two (2) previous readings. Listening to it is almost like an excuse to sit back and let it wash over me instead of studiously slurping in every word and trying to process, even treasure, each choice.
  3. As far as actual reading goes, I’ve been reading Richard Ford’s Independence Day for an eternity and a half. I’m serious. I think I was reading this book the last time I posted, which was long enough ago that this blog would have cobwebs if it were a physical thing. Normally, I’d consider this a sign that it’s time to find a new book. But the problem really has just been that I’m busy. The book’s great. Really. I’ve been loving it. Ford is an undeniably talented writer, and besides that, he’s an enjoyable writer. I think most of us readers know one does not necessarily guarantee the other. Anyway, I’ve had a half-completed blog post on Independence Day sitting in my drafts folder since April. So that will probably be posted. Someday.

Welp, that’s it for updates. Just checking in, saying hi, and letting everyone know I haven’t forgotten about this poor, neglected corner of the internet. I’m not going to do the thing where I promise to start posting more often since I’ve found the publishing of such a post to be the death knell of a blog. Have you ever noticed that? Seems like the best predictor of whether or not you’ll ever see a post again is the presence of an “I’m going to start blogging again!” post after like six months of silence.

If you want to see what I’m up to, business-wise, go check me out at Hit Subscribe in a few weeks, where you can watch the gods laugh at me while I try to blog in two places when I can’t even keep up with one. (Though frankly, that blog will probably fair better since my husband is prolific and generally more disciplined than I am.)

 

Oh, Are We Still Doing the Thing Where We Complain About E-Books?

I have come out of unintentional blog-retirement to give you the gift of this rant.

The Guardian just published an article called “How eBooks lost their shine: ‘Kindles now look clunky and unhip.’” It’s about the leveling off of e-book sales and the resurgence in sales of print books, and it comments on why that might be so, using a combination of author speculation and quotes from authorities. I don’t find anything in the article itself offensive (though I did find it interesting–we’ll check back on the contents a bit later on in the post). What I find offensive is this same old tired sentiment, as expressed by the Twitter user here.

Tweet by @Rose_Pereira: "Good news, book sales are up. Real books. The paper kind."

Can we stop with this?

The insinuation that print books are objectively superior to electronic books in any way is more than exasperating at this point. If you think print books are aesthetically superior to electronic books, I understand. But let’s be real. This isn’t about aesthetics.

Moral Horror or Classist Peacocking?

The attitude that print books are superior reminds me of Kant’s “Judgment of the Beautiful.” Kant in essence says that when we determine something to be beautiful, we’re talking about something bigger than, say, our favorite color. If your favorite color isn’t the same as mine, I don’t think you’re any more right or wrong than me, and I don’t think one color is objectively better. I accept that people have their own tastes. But if I say a sunset is beautiful and you say it isn’t, you’re not allowed to have your own tastes. I’m appealing to something bigger than taste, and I believe there’s something wrong with you if you’re not on my level. Almost morally wrong.

Let’s relate Kant’s theory to the idea that print books are better than e-books. If you prefer physical books to e-books, it’s the equivalent of having a different favorite color. But by claiming “real books” are superior, you’re acting as if you instead have a superior moral standing. You’re appealing to some higher law that we should all abide by, some concept of good and evil. People also thought that the Gutenberg press would be ruinous to society for moral reasons. And then TV. In fact, name a medium, and I’ll find you someone who said it’s going to be the ruin of us in some way.

But let’s complicate this a bit more, because the print-book-worshipers I’ve encountered aren’t actually as simple as that. They’re posturing.

Most people who hate e-books don’t really carry the same pitch of hysteria that other hell-in-a-handbasketers do. If you read Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” you’ll catch a whiff of genuine horror and fear in his tone. It’s the same shake you hear in the voice of all luddites prophesying about how any technology that scares them actually heralds the end of civilization.

I don’t hear panic in the voices of those who feel print books are objectively superior to other formats. I hear superiority. I hear self-satisfaction. Sure, they’ll throw a lot of talk around reminiscent of Carr’s article (“people scan digital text instead of reading deeply,” “technology is taking away our humanity,” blah, blah, blah), but their real message isn’t one of morality.

Nope. To publicly worship the print book and shame every alternative is about posturing. It’s a way to convey classic education and delicate sensibilities. It’s a way to say, “I’m super smart—AMA!” You are playing dress-up as the person you want to be perceived as, just as much as if you’d put on your tweed jacket with the elbow pads and the round bookworm glasses.

And here’s where The Guardian article starts to make real sense. The resurgence of books isn’t about the books themselves. It’s about getting seen with books. What could people who hope to present as bookworms want more than that?

The Book as an Accessory

When it comes to the resurgence of the print book, The Guardian article gives a large amount of credit to an Instagram hashtag.

#Bookstagram [is] a celebration of the aesthetics of books, where books are the supermodels and where readers and non-readers can see cats and dogs reading books, books photographed in landscapes, books posed with croissants, sprays of flowers, homeware, gravestones and cups of coffee, colour-matched and colour-clashed with outfits, shoes, biscuits and in what can only be described as book fashion shoots. You just can’t do a shelfie with an e-reader.

There you have it. Print-lovers, if you’re sincerely concerned about the decay of reading in our society, shouldn’t the Instagram-brow-ing of literature be your first target? Shouldn’t the turning of it into a fashion accessory be where you focus your war cry?

But here’s the thing. Print books are something to be seen with. Your book is a signal, just like a lawyer’s Mercedes is signal. And people who proclaim the objective superiority of print are often the type that wear their books in public whenever possible. So #bookstagram is their jam, if ever there was a jam to be had. You won’t catch them criticising it.

The Real Bone to Pick

Here’s the thing, though. Social signaling is so important to how we connect with others, and that’s not my problem with print-celebrators. Sure, I’ve been talking negatively about posturing, but book-signaling is a great way to make friends, possibly on a deeper level than just about any other type of signaling. I instantly want to talk to everyone I see that has a tattoo sleeve or rainbow hair, and this historically has been a pretty bad predictor of who I might actually make a real human connection with. But if I see someone reading Crime and Punishment, we are going to have an awesome talk, no questions about it.

The problem I have is the insinuation that the signaling is more than just signaling or taste is more than just taste.

I don’t care if you love print or e-books. I don’t care about bookstagram. I don’t care if you wear your book like an accessory. I don’t care if your favorite color is green and mine isn’t. We all have things we aesthetically love. We all signal. Sometimes we use things we aesthetically love to signal. No big deal. But you don’t get to say something subjective is objective because you feel like taste gives you some imaginary high ground.

Especially when you have the opposite of the high ground.

If we’re going to start making high-ground-based arguments, print book lovers are in serious trouble. Look at what Laura Brady noted about the tweet shown earlier in this post.

@LauraB7 response to @Rose_Pereira: "Hot tip: ebooks are 'real' books. More real than real if you have a print disability, even."

During my first few years of college, I had several classes with a friend who was blind. I’ve had very few experiences that were more revelatory than watching her try to navigate the learning process without all the things we students took for granted—handouts, photocopied syllabi with handwritten changes, scantron tests, and, of course, textbooks.

Imagine if her textbooks were available on a Kindle, which can now read your book to you. In fact, making books electronic is the first step in making a whole new world accessible to people with disabilities. It won’t be long before someone with dyslexia can switch the font on an e-reader to Dyslexie or Comic Sans. And for those with reading comprehension issues, public notes and the ability to press-and-hold a word to see the definition can put right at your fingertips the material you’d have to go look up.

 To Sum Up…

I prefer e-readers as a medium now, personally, but I understand the appeal—even the romance—of print books. I remember going to our quarterly library sale and coming home with bags spilling over with paperbacks, and that was one of my favorite feelings in the world. I think about books like House of Leaves, and I’m grateful to print for giving us a gift like that.

This all being said, no matter what my personal preference is, I would never proclaim that the way I like to read is more “real” than someone else’s prefered way of reading. No one should confuse taste with objective fact.

Martin Dressler: Overview

Martin Dressler coveruh…huh.

Tl; Dr

A Dreiser-esque bildungsroman makes sense until about 80% of the way through, at which point it turns abruptly into a completely different novel written by R.L. Stine. At least, it’s what I imagine a Goosebumps to be like. I was always too chicken to read them.

That’s not a great summary.

Martin Dressler is an entrepreneur. We watch him grow from childhood, get his first job, and climb to heights no one could have predicted. He builds an empire of hotels, which ends spectacularly–in more ways than one.

Writing Style

I will say, the writer is consistent throughout. As I said in a previous post, he writes very much in the style of Theodore Dreiser. You’re really immersed in the world and mind of the characters, but it’s heavy on the facts and light on emotive elements. I love the style. It’s vivid in the way a good expose in Rolling Stone is vivid. And towards the end, even though the story goes full-on bat poop, the writing is the same. It’s just that, now, someone’s writing a good expose on a a circus-themed nightmare he had.

Characters

Martin is the main character, and he’s not likeable. You root for him anyway, because he’s a visionary. He also does some admirable things. His ambition causes him to aim high, and it’s hard not to cheer as he refuses to sell his ideas short. He ignores prejudices of his age and has a competent woman as his closest business confidant. But he’s unfaithful and a bully and entitled and, at the end, melodramatic.

Martin’s wife is also insufferable. She reminds me of Linton from Wuthering Heights–frail, waifish, self absorbed. I will say she isn’t whiny, though. Just a total waste of oxygen. Anyone around her has no choice but to make their lives about her or suffer the consequences. Now, you know I don’t mind unlikable characters, as long as they’re interesting. This one is not. And things end ridiculously with this character. Absolutely absurdly.

Anyway, characters are not the selling point of this book. The story is. Well, 80% of the story is. I don’t even know what the last 20% of this book was.

Highlights

I loved reading about the beginning of Martin’s life. As a bellboy, he notices details like the texture of luggage and the shine of brass, and the way he describes the bustle and brightness of the lobby is entrancing.

It was also great to watch Martin’s empire grow. You get to see the nuts and bolts of how he used new marketing techniques and how he found people with complementary skill sets.

There are good things about this book. I enjoyed reading it. UNTIL.

FWIW (My Opinion)

What in god’s name was this author doing. <– That was rhetorical.

The shift from a grounded, great-documentary-style to this starkly contrasting horror fantasy at the end was so utterly bizarre that I felt like my head was spinning, Exorcism-style (which would have been in place with this ending). Let me explain.

You’re just reading a story where Martin is building more and more experimental hotels, imagining whole villages underground with stores and themed activities and–kind of like one of the more over-the-top cruise ships, frankly. And then, all of a sudden, everything is totally out of control. But not in a way that feels like plot continuation. More like a way that feels like the author had a mental breakdown.

I won’t throw a spoiler out there, but Martin’s wife does something in contrast to every non-fantastic thing this book stood for until this point. After this, we’ll further see that all bets are off for realism. The new hotel Martin builds is like a freak show combined with a brothel combined with a nonstop pagan ritual. It’s like you’re in the casinos in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas after taking everything potent in the suitcase and having it go very badly for you–in other words, totally incongruous with the rest of the novel. The switch happens without warning, for the most part. I was turning pages in total disbelief that this was the same book.

I cannot understand for the life of me what the idea was here. I mean, I read a bit about Millhauser, and it sounds like he was indeed trying to transition into the fantastic, but gradually and elegantly. That transition was about as gradual and elegant as slamming into a brick wall at 70 miles an hour. I’d say the ending is unsatisfying, but it didn’t even feel like I was the conclusion of the same story.

Guys, hard pass. Too bad. It was good reading until things went nuts.

Martin Dressler, By Theodore Dreiser…No, Wait

I got a gorgeous new Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas. I think the things are a little overpriced and, with the Kindle app on the phone, they’re not really necessary. But oh my. It just feels so good to read on the Paperwhite. It’s an aesthetically delightful experience. I find myself picking up this beautiful device all the time, even when I really ought to be getting work done instead. I am having a great time, guys.

Martin Dressler coverIf you read my last post, you know I had it up to here (gestures) with American Pastoral. So I moved on to the next item on the Pulitzer list: Martin Dressler, by Steven Millhauser. I’m tearing through it. I wouldn’t call it engaging on a broad level, and I’m not even sure I’d call it good. But it feels like home to me. It’s right in the center of books I know how to read and know how to engage with, because reading this feels exactly like reading Dreiser.

A Bit About Dreiser

For all I’ve written about Dreiser (check out my tag cloud that hasn’t been cool since 2009 but that I still like anyway), I don’t know if I really ever explained him.  He’s a turn-of-the-century author, quintessentially American and Midwestern and highly sociological, whose novels were often bildungsroman-flavored and dealt with industrialism, urban development, and finding one’s way financially from the ground up.

He was a writer in a school called naturalism, which focused on realism (often the gritty, dark aspects of society) and nature vs nurture. Literary naturalists were fascinated by Darwin and the forces of nature. As they were often journalists, they had a detached but holistic view, seeing issues from many perspectives and reporting what they saw without moralizing. Though there’s a few things I think that keep Dreiser from being a spot-on naturalist, he’s got almost all the characteristics.

Also, here are some of Dreiser’s titles

  • Jennie Gerhardt
  • Sister Carrie
  • The Titan
  • An American Tragedy

Now for Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. (See where I was going? It’s a very Dreiser title.)

Similarities Between Dreiser Novels and Martin Dressler

So, first, there’s the writing style. I can’t believe this is a book written in 1996. It is so convincingly turn-of-the-century in language and manner. (I’ve seen criticisms of its historical omissions, but I haven’t noticed anything obvious myself, and I’m fairly well-versed in general American history.) Also, it is so convincingly Dreiseresque, style-wise. There’s the same kind of dry, unemotional third-person storytelling Dreiser employs that allows no manipulation to stand in the way of analysis.

There’s also the bildungsroman aspect, the coming-of-age and discovery of the self found in Sister Carrie, The Genius, The Financier, An American Tragedy, etc. Martin Dressler follows Martin from childhood to success as a young adult. Much of this coming of age is concerned with capitalism and finding one’s way in their career, which is tre Dreiser. And there’s also a similar unflinching portrayal of era-appropriate gender dynamics and the injustices and abuse that male protagonists commit against the female characters. In fact, Martin is very like a Dreiser character in that he’s not quite a protagonist you want to root for. While you feel like you understand him and how he’s developed into this character, he’s moody and rude and unfaithful. Frankly, in many ways, he’s an ugly person. (Can we talk about that scene where he’s so moved by a ten-year-old’s affection that he promptly needs to visit a brothel to lose his virginity? Relevant: this tweet I just saw.)

That’s not all. The subject matter outside of the characters is all Dreiser, too. There’s the young person making their way in a big city, and that big city is growing and changing. There’s new building construction, profits and losses, innovation, industry. No detail is spared in discussing the ins and outs of daily business and the lives of those who run it.

This, too, is Dreiser-like: the level of detail and the inclusion of what we might, as students of literature, see as random scenes. These scenes only serve to help paint a picture of a whole without having any further relevance. I don’t know about you, but when I read, I’m always looking for patterns, foreshadowing, things to come back to later. You can’t do that with Dreiser, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be able to do it with Martin Dressler, either. It took me a bit to get used to this. I always remember the scene in An American Tragedy in which Clyde’s ride with his friends winds up in a terrible accident. I kept waiting for the consequences (or even relevance) of that scene to come back into play later in the novel, and it really never did. In Martin Dressler, there’s that aforementioned stomach-turner with the ten-year-old. I keep waiting for it to be relevant, but it seems to have just been thrown out there and never picked back up. Books like these often have elephants in the room that just hang out, waiting to be acknowledged so we can go about our literary business of treating everything that an author includes as if it has a greater purpose for us to uncover. But in Dreiser’s and Millhauser’s cases, I think it’s just there to be what it is. It’s one more thing to report, allowing us to draw our own conclusions from an assemblage of facts portrayed without the author’s leading or moralizing. It’s the journalism aspect of naturalism.

Anyway, the experience of reading Martin Dressler is so familiar. I feel like I know the book already because of what I think of as my Dreiser period. (You know, like Picasso’s blue period. Except no one considers my reading art. Sad trombone.) As I said, I don’t actually know if I like the book much or if I think it’s well done, but reading it feels second nature to me. It’s strange. Also pleasant. I’m glad to be reading again.

The Signs You Should Put That Book Down

Sometimes we (meaning I) don’t know when to walk away. Maybe we think we like the book we’re reading. Maybe we think that it’s edifying and we’ll wind up being better for reading it. Maybe it was recommended to us by someone who believed we would love it, and we’re waiting to get to the part where we discover they were right.

Put that book down. Life’s too short.

Here’s how you know it’s time to give up that book you’ve been reading.

  1. It’s been several months and you’re still on the same book.
    Sure, you’re busy. Sure, it’s long. You’ve been telling yourself this. But if you were really loving the book, would it still be on your shelf three months since you first cracked it open? And wouldn’t you be past page 80?
  2. You’re very conscious of how much book is left (or, if it’s an e-reader, you keep checking to see what percentage through with the book you are)
    This isn’t curiosity. This is the same as when you’re on the treadmill and you switch from “calories burned” view to “time to cool down” view.
  3.  Someone asks you what you’re reading, and you can’t remember the name of the book
    Maybe this is just me, but when I’m exited about something I’m reading and someone asks me about it, I know the title, the author, around what year it was published–everything. Even if I’m mildly interested, I at least know the title of the book.
  4. When you have the choice to read or do something else, you very consistently do the “something else”
    Plane time has always been my reading time. But during the last few plane trips, I’ve either worked, played the fabulous Machinarium (oh my lord, so beautiful, so worth the money), or wasted time on my brainless-phone-game-of-the-moment. This is not like me.

So, if you can’t tell, I’m having a hard time with–checks Kindle for the name of the book–Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. I am 58% through with the book (see item 2, and I didn’t have to check the Kindle for that info). If someone has asked me what I thought of the book, I would have said, “Eh, it’s pretty good.” But my behavior indicates otherwise. I’ve been reading this since…well, since I last made a blog post about a book.

I’ve been thinking that I’m just busier than normal, or maybe I’m going through a phase where I really love the poker mode in Bejeweled, or [insert other excuse here]. But there are just too many signs that it’s the book’s fault.

There have been times where I got through a book I didn’t like and I was glad I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. But on the whole, I want to go on the record as screaming this big, fat double negative, both to me and to anyone reading:

DON’T READ BOOKS YOU DON’T LIKE!

A protestant work ethic keeps so many of us from enjoying our lives. Don’t suffer for the sake of edification, unless that’s your quest for the moment. Sure, try some books that aren’t usually you jam. Try to see why others like them. Try out something that makes you think in a new way. But if you find that reading it feels more like suffering than enjoyment, just put the thing down. You’re not losing an investment. You’re gaining back leisure time that would have been spent on something that doesn’t make you happy.

Read books you love. It’s a message as much for me as it is for anyone else.

Women in Literature: Marry or Die

woman-clip-artIt feels like the more I look the world, its literature included, the more I see gender-related expectations pigeonholing humanity as a whole. Historically, I think there have been more obvious and tangible limiting factors imposed on women, but the expectations placed on men are harmful in more insidious, psychological ways. And I think the general hetero-centric nature of society is immensely damaging to everyone in that it forces people to identify as in or out of a social norm and further develop a personal identity that revolves around “please, please, accept me—I’m normal, and I’ll help excommunicate those that don’t conform!” or “I am other, and I must understand how to live life in accordance with that truth and face all the possible confrontations and unpleasantness that may come with.” But that’s for another time.

I don’t really mean to make all my gender-related posts about women, but 1. I am in that camp, hence special empathy, and 2. it’s often an easier, more in-your-face target to talk about gender problems with women characters, and I’m nothing if not lazy.

I wrote about this when I read Anna Karenina and just felt generally disgusted. I’m sick of seeing books that define women characters by heterosexual pairing/romance. Can’t they be people? People who have something other than relationships with men at the core of their being? Can’t they have things that interest them, puzzle them at night, make them interested in the universe…just something other than whatever hetero pairing may be coming their way?

That being said, it’s a lot better in literature now than it used to be, probably because women have the opportunity to do something other than wait around for someone to marry and impregnate them. I read a great article talking about characters needing to “marry or die” (I can’t remember where, or I’d link)—and it’s so accurate. This idea was first posed to me by an English teacher at my community college. I was in an 18th–19th century lit course, and she challenged me to find one book from the time period, just one, where even the boldest and most unconventional of women didn’t wind up married or dead by the end of the book. It’s as if authors, having their women reach full independence or at least operate outside of societal norms, had nowhere to take them after that. (Indeed, where would an independent woman go in these days, having dodged death and mandatory hetero pairing? Almost certainly on the fringes of society, if she could have made it—some rumored witch or freak that was social poison to associate with.)

But what is this theory without some examples?

  • Jane Eyre: married.
  • Madame Bovary: dead.
  • The Awakening’s Edna with her fabulous teeth: dead.
  • Poor, poor Tess D’uberville: dead.
  • Elizabeth Bennet: married.

Really. Find me a woman character from around this time period (1700s and 1800s) that succeeded in being outside society in some way and stayed unmarried and, if not happy, living. (Please. I want at least one to exist.)

Bonus

I’m into bonuses lately. This internet thing has some great stuff in it–have you guys heard?

Just found in McSweeny’s: If Women Wrote Men the Way Men Write Women, by Meg Elison

Here’s my favorite:

Brett pulled his tank top up over his head and stared at himself in the full-length mirror. He pushed down his jeans, then his boxers, and imagined the moment when Jennifer saw him nude for the first time. His feet were average-sized, and there was hair on his toes that he should probably take care of before tonight. He liked his legs just fine, but his thighs were wide and embarrassingly muscular. He tried standing at an angle, a twist at his waist. Some improvement. In that position, it was easier to see his ass and notice that it was not as pert as it had been at 22. He clenched both cheeks, hoping that tightened its look. He sucked in his tummy and pulled his pecs up high, trying to present them like pastries in a bakery window. Would she like him? Were the goods good enough? He pouted his lips and ran his hands over his thighs, masking their expanse. Maybe.

Fabulous.