Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher are two complex, sympathetic works. These are the only two Perrotta books I have read, but it is clear to me that he is a generous author, who is able to detail the complex thought chains lying below each of his characters’ surfaces. This generosity turns symbols into living, breathing people, enabling them to transcend simple, thematic opposition and actually interact with one another. The key point is that he does not treat the opposition as punching bags.

Little Children is the lesser work of the two, if only because the plot seems so apparently stilted next to the personalities of the characters. The inclusion of a child-molester in this story seems to serve no purpose other than to enable some opportunities for Brad to get out of the house (as part of a neighborhood watch group) and to provide some tension near the end of novel. It is too clumsy, given that Perrotta’s skill is so evident in his descriptions of the molester, inspiring both repulsion and pity.

There is one misstep in characterization that occurs on the first page, when the women are introduced – except for our protagonist Sarah – as the mother of so-and-so child. It isn’t symbolism: it is a neon sign that states Sarah is the contrarian of the bunch, a lapsed feminist who longs to be defined by anything other than motherhood. For the most part, the other women, who serve more as the Harpies than a Greek chorus, are not fleshed out. There is one little vignette where the shrew’s (Mary Ann’s) unhappy home life is laid bare, but for the rest of the story they serve to remind Sarah of the destiny awaiting her. No conversation is more meaningful than where the offspring is going to preschool, what toys are being recalled, what TV shows one had watched through heavy-lidded eyes.

That alone would drive one to drink, but Sarah chooses adultery instead. She was and is a mousy girl, who wanted to but couldn’t date the popular jock in high-school or college; she achieves this juvenile ambition by eventually sleep with Brad, a househusband who should be studying for his third attempt at passing the bar exam. The affair has great power within the context of the trapped lives both Sarah and Brad feel they lead. The excitement isn’t so much in the illicit nature of sneaking behind their spouses but rather in the fact that they share a common appreciation of one another. Therein lies the trick in Perrotta humanizing the two; certainly, I felt badly for Richard and Kathy, the spurned spouses. But I felt more sadness than anger in Sarah and Brad finding their escape in each other.

The humanization comes because one can identify with the cause of the affair: the perception that one’s spouse doesn’t fully appreciate him as a partner. It is not a matter of reality; it is that one spouse feels put upon and felt the need to seek that appreciation elsewhere. Brad is the simple case: he is going through his mid-life crisis early. He has failed the bar exam twice, but he states he entered law school on a whim. He watches teenage boys skateboarding and longs to join; instead, he winds up with a bunch of cops and ex-cops in a football league. He is satisfied being a house husband, but of course his wife is expecting him to contribute financially. Her moral support of his attempting the bar exam has crossed from wishing him well into an expectation that he will fail and not pull his financial weight. Sarah’s case is just as simple: her husband isn’t interested in her. She wants to be significant. She is intelligent, but decides that the only way to distinguish herself from the pack of mothers is to flirt with Brad. The two hit it off.

It would have been cheap for Perrotta to distance the reader from Richard and Kathy. Instead, Perrotta turns them into people, each with flaws. Kathy is a harried woman, one reaching the limit of her patience with her husband. Fairly or not, she feels too put upon. She works and so doesn’t spend enough time with her son. Although she is following her dream of directing documentaries, it doesn’t pay well. She has been understanding and a cheerleader for her husband – despite his repeated failure. She is tired. Richard is more difficult to describe; he appreciated Sarah’s intelligence when they first met and now provides financial stability for their family. But in the end, he too is tired and desires something less ordinary.

That is what I like about Perrotta’s writing. Sure, he slings barbs at suburban life, but his characters are people like you or me. Under any number of circumstances, we could be Sarah, Richard, Kathy or Brad. Perrotta’s characters in an understandable manner, despite our disapproval. Recently, I had read Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which helped crystallized some ideas about human emotional and cultural baggage for me. Perrotta’s characters strike me as real because he describes the dissonance between basic desires driving action (i.e. nature) and professed desires (the sum of education, environment, and upbringing) so well.

One scene that illustrates this is when Brad notices that his son flat out ignores him as soon as Mom (Kathy) comes home. That scene bundles the flash of Brad’s jealousy of the bond between son and mother, the fact that the boy and mother essentially enter their own world and exclude him, and the fact that he might be feeling both unmanly (for being a house husband) and his efforts not being recognized by his son or appreciated by his wife. Everything about this scene rings of authenticity. Again, without declaring whether there is validity in the perception (although one will be either sympathetic to Brad or not), the sum of all these minor events build up the case that Perrotta is interested in explaining (and thus looking past one’s view of the adulterers), but not excusing , Brad’s and Sarah’s behaviors.

I would guess the moral of the story is that communication only goes so far. Perhaps that is what love means: that a partner thinks enough of the other person to continue talking. If so, then Perrotta must think the world a loveless place.


Imperial BedroomsImperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Wow. The book is graphic; I am unsure as to the grand purpose behind the book. Ellis doesn’t write a sympathetic character. He writes about broken people who  suffer further humiliation of spirit. They then choose to ignore the outrage or to perpetrate them. Clay, the antihero of Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms, responds by taking as much as he can.
I had supposed Less Than Zero to be about kids who suffer from a shallow culture and a lack of mature guidance. Rather than understanding that maturity is a state of mind, the neglected children in Zero do adult-like things. They drink, they fuck, they drive around, they snort, and they spend.
None of these kids actually had to learn to survive; as if navigating the currents of upper class ennui prepares one for life. No, these children have family money and lack for nothing. None of them will ever need to think about how to earn enough to keep him fed, clothed and sheltered. Instead, they only learn how to manage their coke habit.
If the book is simply about having too much money, too soon, without guidance, then it would have been trivial. What Ellis did was to amplify despondency  by sexing up the story. It mirrors the state of the characters in the book. Just as the outrageous loses shock value over time, so must the kids seek ever more grotesque modes of enjoyment. There really is nowhere else to go but down. In this context, Less Than Zero plays out like a cry for help.
A reasonable adult would simply want them to stop abasing themselves. But what could be done? Take away their money? That will simply cause them to spiral down the drain faster. It will force the children into whoring themselves that much sooner. The regulator against self abuse is a healthy concept of human dignity, which Ellis has taken pains to show doesn’t exist for Clay. While some the characters avoid doing evil, it is out of fear rather than value for another person. One point is that there is so little one can do; we must live with these monsters. We conclude that when one has everything, he has very little to lose.
In the early 80’s, I suppose to read about 13 to 19 year olds experimenting with drugs and homosexuality was a kick to the head. But the book quickly leaves conventional outrage behind. Clay moves from an inability to relate to people to observing acts of evil. We see Clay happen upon a snuff film (but is it? After all, these kids’ parents all seem to work in film. Perhaps it is fake? Somehow, Ellis presents that alternative as a straw man.) Clay walks in on a gang rape. He doesn’t join, but remained indifferent.
It is unclear how much of that was ingrained or learned. And perhaps it doesn’t matter. No parents are seen in the book. And when Clay’s 13 year old sister is talking about the quality of sex and coke, it seems besides the point to ask whether nature or nurture was at fault. The book again emphasizes what little we can do.
In Imperial Bedrooms, we find the characters older, but no deeper, than in Less Than Zero. Clay is a screenwriter. He has left a girl friend behind in New York to come back to LA. He enjoys the physical delights of the casting couch. Clay withdraws into ever more depraved activities. There is really only two ways for the sequel to go: either Clay works towards redeemimg himself or becomes a monster.
Because we see Clay being outmaneuvered in this novel, the despair that was apparent in the first book is transformed into exhibitionism. In Imperial Bedrooms, we are simply seeing predators fighting. But before the end, we see an amoral Clay, from Less Than Zero, transgressing into immorality. I suppose the difference is that Clay either watched others be harmed or harmed himself in the first book but now harms others. We see him use men and women alike, just to exert power over others. As my 5 year old said of his 2 year brother: ‘He wants what he wants. He’s the king of the babies.’
And then the book ends. Clay is simply led away by a more brutal monster, losing his territory to a more ruthless predator.
At some point, one might ask if Ellis is writing satire. I don’t think there is enough of Clay engaging with society or other personalities. We remain within Clay, locked into his limited point of view (animal sees food, takes food, animal sees pleasure, gets pleasure.) There is one toss away line, about how snuff films are now released on the Internet. I don’t think this single point elevates Imperial Bedrooms to an absurdist look at society.
Imperial Bedrooms, like Less Than Zero, is narrated in the first person. But we never know what Clay thinks. We see him act. Ellis’s style tends to reinforce the feeling that this book is like an animal documentary. We infer Clay’s mental state by his responses to his environment. The readers have to anthropomorphize Clay.
Because Ellis offers very little in the providing his thoughts for how to engage against Clay and his ilk, I can see how his book can be perceived as pornography. It lets depravity titillate the reader while not offering any comment. Well, that’s not true; the fact that one needs a second predator to clean house says a lot. That is the nature of the world. Play victim or to play aggressor.
While Less Than Zero had similar elements, the end of that novel was moderate. Clay’s problem was that he couldn’t treat other people as individuals. That meant Clay had a chance to snap out of it, giving the reader a small measure of hope. He could grow up.  In Imperial Bedrooms, the trajectory is aimed downwards. We are only left wondering how steep is Clay’s descent. And there is little we can do to help the characters, or ourselves, if heaven forbid we have something they want.

Almost Dead: A NovelAlmost Dead: A Novel by Assaf Gavron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I thought that this book should have switched titles with Super Sad True Love Story.

An Israeli citizen named Eitan Einoch survives three suicide bombings. He becomes a national celebrity as shell shock overwhelms him. For a short while, it seems he find happiness; from the first suicide bombing, a fellow rider with a premonition asks Einoch to deliver a message to his girlfriend. Einoch plays it off. After he disembarks the minibus, the bomber struck. Einoch deals with his survival by trying to deliver the message. He falls in love with the girl.

There is a parallel story, told from Fahmi Sabih’s point of view. We learn that he is a Palestian refugee, lying in a hospital room. He’s in a coma; it doesn’t take much to realize that his story will converge with Einoch’s.

I haven’t had much exposure to fiction from the Middle East, and only from a historical perspective (Orman Pamuk’s My Name is Red.) As a disinterested third party, I feel that Gavron was delicate in portraying the plight and character of Palestinians – including the suicide bombers. One gets a sense of the complexities that any inhabitant must juggle. Loyalty to family, to one’s tribe, to society, and even to oneself – exemplified by the need to seek a better life. Not everyone succumbs to hate. Not everyone can rise to forgive. Some parents wish their sons to join the fight; others wish them to flee and just live.

Gavron brings a  light touch, I think. Nothing is too heavy handed; I thought it was masterful the way he portrayed Einoch’s numbness has he survives attack after attack. I have no idea how I would react, nor do I know how one usually responds, but I can appreciate that some people may not run screaming – at least not right away. Instead, he lets Einoch’s problems develop; rather than dramatic confrontations, Einoch loses efficiency and concentration.

Another device Gavron uses well is coincidence. Not the fact that Einoch suffers several bombings and has his fate intertwined with Fahmi, but the simple interactions with other characters. The encounters do not seem forced; Gavron gives his characters space. Just because two of them appear on the same stage doesn’t mean that it will lead to anything. This light touch helps to create an impression of life, of simply being.

Gavron, I think, brings a bit of sympathy in his portrayal of life and death in Israel. He can’t fault the hard-liners too much, and I think he wishes the best for the citizens who wish to ignore the conflict and just live. But there are too many fingers pointing; every combatant has an easy time claiming vengeance for a previous injustice or violence. It brings to mind George Carlin’s rant on “Peace without honor” – one mustn’t let pride be valued over life. In most cases, pride means to get one’s way. The reciprocal recriminations sound like the argument that it’s turtles all the way down, with no true foundation in sight.

I came across a strange post from Lev Raphael, over at He tried to correct something Jodi Picoult wrote in her dismissal of the New York Time book critics. Over Twitter and interviews, Picoult pointed out her feeling that the NYT critics are biased in whom they select for discussion. The most recent literary author deemed fit to print is Jonathan Franzen. [Picoult had also previously discussed this point with Jason Pinter and Jennifer Weiner at the Huffington Post .]

The controversy, such as it is, reflects the hardline stances and lack of nuance in media. It is a controversy made of nothing more than opinions that every side here is entitled to. Picoult admitted she never did a count of how often white, male writers from Brooklyn were reviewed and acclaimed. She was simply being snide. The NYT can publish on whomever they wish. And kibbitzers like Raphael and I can add our own bits.

The one tossaway line I wanted to focus on is Picoult’s line that book reviews ought to focus on popular literature, even more so than literary fiction.

The specific thing I wanted to write about is Raphael’s response to this statement. He noted that Jane Austen, for example, was not popular in her time. Readers gravitated to her and parted with money from their pocketbooks only after her death. Basically, Raphael was correcting the idea that Austen was “popular” during her life time.

I think Raphael misread this statement. Picoult wrote

… the books that have persevered in our culture and in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day, but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses.

Picoult’s point is much simpler. The authors did not separate the idea of worthy, meaty big-L literature from writing something that was a smooth read, snappy, and contained plot. That is, there was no distinction made between novels targeted for the critics and for the masses. I have felt that this idea is missing in modern literature. I had always assumed that what we call the classics (and generally I place the fracturing of a consensus canon to post-Hemingway literature) grew organically from fiction of  the times. That is, critics could only select on what was published, and frankly, our forebears were extremely focused on what sells.  This seemed a happy middle ground, where the novels were written to appeal to the masses. Critics rode shotgun over this process, trying to cultivate some sense of sophistication in how readers were to receive and understand literature.

As B.R. Myers has noted, though, there has been a change in attitude among modern writers, codified by the elevation of the serious, difficult fiction above works that are written for the masses. Nevermind who decides this to begin with. I find it disjointed that we now look askance at books that are entertaining, as if somehow it cheapens the linguistic fireworks and ideas that might be contained (and Franzen makes the same point.)

To be clear, I am not writing that authors – both modern and past –  never gave a thought to their legacy. Of course they did, but above all, they wrote books that people (eventually) wanted to read. Everything else follows from that. There was no separation of purpose: they wrote for the sale, and if they had ego and pride, they wrote to last.

Even when Jonathan Franzen first made headlines with The Corrections, I found the discussion rather pretentious. Apparently, everyone was focused on how he was one of the first to capture a slice of society, in all its messy complexity. My first reaction was, did Wharton, Thackeray and Tolstoy not accomplish something similar? Upon reading it, after rolling my eyes at the requisite number of disjointed paragraphs and awkward phrasing, I thought the best thing about The Corrections was that Franzen wrote about a family of assholes, but that each person was an asshole in his or her own way. I thought Franzen’s technical mastery was in his characters*, since writing in distinct voices is hard.

*For an example of a less successful instance, see Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red (and just to be fair, the distinct voices may have suffered from translation, so I’ll spread the blame here to include Erdag Goknar, the translator.) My Turkish friend did feel the same way, although I need to ask if she read it in Turkish or the English translation. So Goknar may yet be taken off the hook!

The worse thing to happen to any field, let alone literature, is that things must be “difficult” to be worthwhile (and Franzen agrees!) The idea that modern physics is a mind-trip was mistakenly interpreted to mean presentation rather than the ideas being explained. Somehow, this type of thinking infected critics and writers alike. So we get difficult prose (something Myers expounded upon), obfuscating stories with barely a plot, poor character development, and less than imaginative ideas.

Using scientific papers, published in academic journal, is a poor method to show how difficult ideas can be conveyed simply. These papers  are short, and many scientists are poor in compressing complex information in a easily read manner. I would suggest anyone examine the books of Howard HughesRobert Sapolsky, Dave Berri, Brian Greene, Daniel Dennett, and Jared Diamond for examples of how complex ideas and details can be presented in a straight-forward way.  It bears repeating: the difficult reading in science has nothing to do with the writing but in the ideas themselves. Obfuscation is the enemy. To properly convey nuance and technically complex experiments, one needs to be extremely concise and clear so that others can focus on the data and conclusions.

To my mind, modern authors deemed to be of the literary type do the exact opposite. They dress up simple plots (boy meets girl, girl protects self, man-as-boy-then-grows up) in “difficult” language that a satirist would sooner write in that style than to write a mockery. There are only so many plots. What I would focus on is good writing and that kernel of observation that separates one book from another. I wish I were an editor or a book critic; as it stands, I read about 5 books every 2 weeks. Even reading so few books, I have a sense of what passes for good writing (Robert Bolano + translator: good; Don DeLillo: not so good). I can honestly say that although, there are books  I found “difficult” to get through, it wasn’t due to my lack of comprehension or inability to grasp metaphors. No,  I have read their language and found it wanting. So much so that I sometimes question the intellect of the writer.

Part of this disconnect I have with modern literature may stem from my wanting to write like Wharton and Thackeray. Modern authors like Mark Helpern also appeal to me. I much prefer to read a novel and not notice the language until the epiphany in the middle of the book, when I ask myself, how exactly did the author write this? Prose can be complex and difficult, but I have no problem following the authors’ thoughts. Of course, one can fail spectacularly in writing in this style: the writing would become so one dimensional that it leaves little room to the imagination. At this point, the novel would pass into the realm of an essay.

I admit that I am probably being a curmudgeon by my attitudes against modern writers and their scattershot writing style, hoping that words dropped onto a page somehow stick. Impressionism works as a visual art  form, not so much for prose (a point discussed in Myers’s book.)

I’ll just end by saying that, at its most basic, I object (and I echo Picoult here) to the divide that modern critics and so-called literary writers created in viewing mainstream books as a distinct creature from literary fiction. I much prefer to be surprised and awed by the writing in an entertaining book than to be disappointed by a “literary” novel that neither entertained nor stunned me with its language.

While I thought the movie Sideways was funny enough, it wasn’t a movie I would enjoy rewatching; I detested Paul Giamatti’s and Thomas Hayden Church’s characters, Miles and Jack, respectively, in that movie.  The one standout scene in that movie, for me, isn’t when Miles talked about how much he likes pinot noirs – which is just a self-pitying comparison between him and the grape. (That is, the care and cultivation needed for that grape to reach its full potential as a wine is the same care that a woman needs to give to him. Really. The effort expended on the grape is less aggravating, since the grape isn’t boorish and doesn’t talk back. Why should anyone, even his mother, spend that much attention on him?)

No, the scene that made me feel some sympathy toward Miles is his guzzling his prized bottle of wine (a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc), from a styrofoam cup, in a fast food restaurant, after he found out his ex-wife is pregnant. I believe that’s the occasion he was saving that bottle for, with them still being married and finding out they are expecting  (or nowadays, probably waiting until she gave birth and finished breastfeeding). In a nutshell, one can see that maybe the wife didn’t share all his interests, and that he had spent way too much time indulging in his own passion while not sparing any for his wife. It is sad, and seems a common affliction.

I am not the first to point out that a number of books and movies that focus on unattractive, compulsive, abusive, jerky men who luck into wonderful relationships with walking sex fantasies with a heart of gold and infinite patience. The writers are writing about their own desires, and these writers are all white, middle-aged men who, if we assume that these movies and books express their ideas about relationships, do not work at building friendships. These men sound like assholes.

And so we finally come to Juliet, Naked, the story of Annie, Duncan, and Tucker. Annie is an intelligent woman, stuck in a dead-end relationship with Duncan. Duncan is obsessed with a musician (Tucker) who disappeared during a tour; he was not seen nor heard from again. However, a core of diehard fans kept paying tribute to Duncan in the form of website and forum, trading in bootlegs and speculating about why Tucker turned away from the life of a rock star. They share stories about pilgrimages to locations deemed an important part of Tucker’s life.

As one imagines, the problem is not the compulsive behavior of these men, in the microscopic examination of every shred of public evidence of Tucker’s life. A major problem is in how these men feel Tucker owes them access to his life, to the point where fans try to intrude on his life.

However, I think a small part of the novel deals with  fan behavior; Hornby is gracious enough to recognize that some fans look weird and obsessive because most other people make them out to be weird. It is expected, until the advent of web based tools that let artists easily engage in self-promotion, that artists keep distance from their audience. I would suppose that artists would prefer that fans don’t talk back and certainly not to break into the homes of people who have some relationship to them.

At any rate, spending a vacation touring suburbs and bathrooms in the Midwest suggests that Duncan is a pathetic, infantile man who cannot move on. Of course, it also describes Annie, and her situation is even worse because she won’t or can’t leave Duncan, despite his problems being abundantly clear to her.

Things change in Duncan’s and Annie’s life when she opens mail intended for Duncan. The package contained a disc of unreleased material; it is basically a draft of Juliet, a record Tucker had released, and dubbed Juliet, Naked. Annie listens to it and concludes that the produced version is much better. This differs from Duncan’s view, and eventually their relationship breaks under the strain. Annie also writes out her thoughts about “Naked” on the Tucker fan site, managing to catch Tucker’s attention.

There are some interesting ideas here, mostly in how it is much easier to cultivate a relationship with someone who doesn’t reciprocate (in this case, it’s Tucker.) By traveling the same tour path as Tucker, by interpreting his music, and by doing everything short of treating Tucker like an actual person, Duncan and his compatriots can indulge in their pop psychology analysis of Tucker, of his drive and motivation. In short, fans like Duncan can project their own desires onto Tucker.

From my reading, Hornby’s books tend  examine the many different ways men engage in these one-sided relationships. It is much easier being a fan of a soccer team, ranking musicians, and generally being self-absorbed. Again, the idea of being a fan is to establish ones identity relative to the object of his obsession. It isn’t so much admiration as a mirror. The men interpret the art or the game or the players as they like (and it is their right), but it never seems as if they ever considered that the artist or the players may have their own views.

A major part of the work is in the idea of interpretation and how much an author has control over the nature of his works’ impact. There is one good bit with Duncan, towards the end of the novel. He meets Tucker and sees that Tucker isn’t the person Duncan has in mind. We also found out that these obsessives have staked a lot worship on the wrong information. They live on rumors about Tucker’s underground gigs, his supposed influence in production or writing of songs, and sightings of a person who isn’t even Tucker. So real Tucker doesn’t conform to Duncan’s idea of the man. We find out that Tucker also feels like that he can’t recognize the person he was anymore.

Tucker, it turns out, left music because he felt that his anguish over losing the love of Juliet, made tangible by his writing the songs on the record Juliet, was fake. He realized, while on tour, that he might actually love his new infant daughter more. That relationship may be more meaningful than young love. Perversely, he felt this feeling distanced himself from his own music, because whatever he wrote would be fiction. The music would no longer be authentic.

Duncan’s moment comes after this revelation. He argued the less creepy and more meaningful point that while an artist has his own motivations in creating a work of art, he cannot control how others perceive the piece or what meanings they take from it. Art inspires, but it is a mistake to think that it is an exact science in what feelings other take away. The important thing is that people take something from the piece, even if the artist loses touch with his own work.

This is the very argument I would use to justify me writing these musings about books I read. I was wrong to describe this blog as a series of book reviews. It is a collection of thoughts about books; ideally, I connect these ideas to themes from other books I read and, I hope, relatively novel thoughts I have based on my experience.

I would take the Duncan argument a step further; an artist shouldn’t feel inauthentic if his motivations and passions change. The sculpture, book, song, painting, photograph, or whatever, probably came from an authentic place, at the time the piece was created. If life happens and the artist feels differently later, what’s wrong with that? Why can’t he grow or regress? Why not author something new?

One final note: I suppose the Duncan argument runs a bit close to the post-modernist’s “textual analysis” justification. Everything is open for debate; meaning is in the eye of the beholder; there is no primary interpretation, thus ignoring the author’s own ideas, as if he has no idea why he created a work of art. This is a philosophical difference I am not reconciled with. I think that art should have some meaning or motivation. This comes from my finding art an absolute waste of time when the artist has no point of view. Rather, if his point-of-view is that he wants to say everything about everything, where symbols mean all things to all people, he says nothing at all. What I want from art is a particular thought, or feeling, something that convinces me that the author/painter/musician had something specific in mind. I don’t want to go to an artshow to look into a mirror, where I leave with what I  brought. I want to hear what the artist has to say, and think about it, and agree or disagree with it. With that said, of course individual interpretation has value; it’s just that I prefer it when the artist treats me with respect and has enough confidence in his own ideas to be specific. The problem is, this does require that an artist uses his vernacular to establish a framework for interpretation. That is, there is a so-called primary interpretation – that is, a true meaning – even if at a very skeletal level. Isn’t that the point of language, and, more generally, communication? Why write, speak or draw if the audience simply edits things on the fly to fit his own preconceptions? I do feel that interpretation is and should be constrained, and I do not respect artists who abrogate this basic responsibility.

In many ways, Strangers on a Train is a much more satisfying work than Crime and Punishment. In broad strokes, both detail the guilt-wracked protagonists after each committed murder.  Guy Haines was browbeaten into committing murder, which seemed a questionable plot point. But what struck me as eminently believable was the way in which Guy’s mind grew distraught, even as his life continued apace.

I think it seems in vogue to write about murder as if any one of us can commit it. From my reading, Highsmith took the opposite thesis. People who kill are a little bit off. Charles Bruno is the son of a rich  man; he’s indolent and insolent. He is a little bit too close to his mother, and he probably harbors homosexual tendencies (it’s not weird now, but in the 50’s, it was). He certainly has a strong sense of the fantastical. He feels that Guy is the only person who can understand him and that they can escape together and recount their crime.
Guy and Bruno meet on a train. They talk, and Bruno senses some hint of tension in Guy. Guy has a wife whom he wishes to divorce – the very reason for the train trip – and Bruno has a father who apparently is an ogre. Bruno suggests what is the perfect crime, and has become a detective genre cliche. Bruno would kill Miriam, Guy’s soon to be ex-wife and Guy would kill Bruno’s father. The perfect crime, as the killers would have no obvious links to the victims, amounting to a random murder. Guy is disturbed and appalled by Bruno; I think he senses something is off-kilter about Bruno. Needless to say, Bruno is crazy, and decides to force matters and kills Miriam. Part of this might be because Bruno hates women. He says he hates his father because the father is an adulterer. But it turns out that Bruno’s mom gives as good as she gets, having her own stable of men to toy with. As another hint as to the fact that Bruno lives in his own head, he tells Guy that his mother is an example of the purity of women. Other evidence to show that Bruno is mentally unstable is that Bruno cannot leave Guy alone. He needs to drop hints to the detective who is following him. He involves himself in Guy’s life. In other words, establishing the connections that make it much easier to to link the two men.

What was interesting to me is how Highsmith handled Guy’s eventual descent into his own madness and commits murder. It is as if the motive is for Guy to shut Bruno up. Not necessarily to avoid being framed for a murder he didn’t commit, or that he wished to indulge in an animal behavior, but to kill so that Bruno would stop bothering him. Guy is portrayed as a depressed individual. He can’t take joy in his success. He is divorcing Miriam because she cheated on him, often. There is the element that Guy feels ill-used and played for a fool. He can’t be happy with his new girlfriend. He cannot confide in her, certainly not the murder but also very few other things.  It doesn’t take too much to disrupt Guy’s life, because he is already on the edge. He couldn’t be happy with his life before the murder, and he lets guilt take over after the murder. That is the one thing Guy can do extremely well – play martyr.

But I thought the best part of the novel was in how it slowly developed that others began to notice Guy’s odd behavior. It was a neat trick to portray it subtly, where others begin to see that something is not quite right with Guy. This is true especially in how Guy’s fiance notices that Guy goes from depression to something wilder.

In similar fashion, Highsmith’s short stories, in the collection The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, show that she has little sympathy for humankind. Although there is a collection of character sketches that paint women in a terrible light (Little Tales of Misogyny),  in truth, no one came off looking too sympathetic. That’s not true; the collection opens up with a number of stories about animals that commit murder. Highsmith portrays these murderers as eminently justified. Everyone else is selfish, ugly, and dark. We see murder committed in cold blood, as an afterthought, for the joy of it, and from negligence and indifference. It’s impressive that, to my eyes, the stories are distinctive enough such that they don’t seem repetitive.

My favorite story is “The Romantic”. It is about a secretary who gets stood up on a date. Eventually, she starts going on made-up dates, where she sits and enjoys her time at a bar. She imagines the men she is waiting for. Knowing that these men will never show up, she feels liberated and happy.  She comes to realize that she very much prefers these pretend dates. So much so that when she is asked to go out on a date, she stands her date up. Her imagination gives her more satisfaction then men (and perhaps even other companions.) While it isn’t quite the slamming of the door in Ibsen’s “The Doll House”, I think it is a strong statement to make: Fuck them; I don’t need them.

Lev Grossman’s novel scares me. I have two boys, and I worry about their reading books like these. The magic doesn’t bother me. The sex and violence do not bother me. What bothers me is that Grossman never resolves the question of how Quentin deals with the dark void that is his heart.

For some reason, I read a lot of fantasy novels. In some ways, I suppose I like that pristine wilderness ideal that is so prominent in these books. However, I do find the plots involving prophecies to be especially compelling, for the same reason that puzzle books (like solving Masonic mysteries or crime novels) interest me. I like the chase to figure out how the clues resolve the deeply buried secret. The Magicians has the mystery element, but the main point is how Quentin deals with the pointlessness of life.

Quentin is unhappy. He trudges to school. He is bright, but he is not as smart or popular as the two friends he hangs out [with, one] of whom is a girl he has an unrequited crush on. Quentin is depressed and because “magic” is lacking from his life. Not real magic, necessarily. Life just isn’t fanciful enough for him. It holds no wonder. He is jaded.

One day, he arrives at his college entrance interview with a Princeton alumnus only to find him dead. On the way home, he was handed a folder with a  tantalizing title of The Magicians, a heretofore unknown sixth book of a childhood favorite, the fictional Christopher Plover’s Fillory series. This is probably a Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings type of series, a seminal [book] in the character’s lives. At the same time, a slip of paper comes loose and he chases it. He chases and chases and chases, until he winds up in front of a manor house. He senses something magical, follows his guts, gives in, and enters the manor. He sits down for a test. It is the strangest test, but as it turns out, he passes. He passes by giving an extremely vibrant [display] of magic, pulling a sword from a stack of cards.

He faints and when he awakes, he finds himself that much closer to the magical world described in his favorite fantasy novel – Christopher Plover’s Fillory. [There’s] a good bit of plot, but the one thing that grabbed my attention was Quentin’s continued slide into despair. This book is a bit more serious than Harry Potter. Grossman does a great job of turning magic mundane. Which makes sense if one is born into this world; it is not in fact “magical” but somewhat… run of the mill. Magic isn’t special to a sorceror, and Grossman does his best to get the point across: in his world, magic is a learned skill. The power may in fact be particular to the student, but the actual invocation is work.  That part was nice.

However, as Quentin’s time at school drags on, we realize that his heart remains empty. Even as he has entered this world of magic, he dares ask, “Is this all there is?” In fact, that’s the theme that is never resolved in this book. Part of the appeal of the fantasy genre is escapism. As if our lives would be better if somehow we could live in a simpler time – but with magic. I have never liked this aspect of fantasy. I do not like how writers treat this world (the real one!) as something so bereft of wonder that they seek retreat into a place with literal magic. This is especially apparent in a so-called urban fantasy such as The Magicians.

Grossman plays the trick out. It is clear that Quentin is a broken boy. He yearned for something greater than the mundane world. He found it. But it isn’t a matter of the inadequacy of a wish coming true. He just is not in a position to appreciate where he is or what he has. He understands it intellectually, but he doesn’t feel it. In a way, the magic loses its luster once he realizes that, it still doesn’t answer the basic questions of what good is his magic for, what will he do when he graduates.

He finds a girl friend whose parents are magicians. She tried warning him about the purposeless lives that magicians can fall into, when they realize that their lives are not any better than a mundane’s. After graduation, Quentin falls into a life of dissipation, exactly the scenario the girl friend, Alice, wanted to avoid.

Until the characters find out that Fillory, one of the many magic worlds the students grew up reading about, is real. There is a whole second novel here, where the characters journey to Fillory and save this land from the domination of an evil king. Again, what bothered me was just that Quentin’s character remained unhappy. throughout the whole book, the character gets everything he desired, but it is still not enough. This might be Grossman’s indictment against fantasy worlds. If your heart is empty, no amount of magic will act as a salve.

At the same time, there is no resolution because Quentin did not snap out of his funk until the climactic battle and his estranged girlfriend sacrificed herself. Only after this dramatic event did Quentin come to terms with himself. But how often do we get this big reset event?That’s what worries me about this book. Life isn’t as fantastic; life is mundane and full of so-called little moments. My worry is that readers draw the wrong lesson and wait for the big dramatic event and avoid the difficult work of coming to terms with oneself.

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