The Great American Novel Project: Absalom, Absalom!

September 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

Absalom, Absalom!

This isn’t my first attempted Faulkner novel. It is my first completed Faulkner novel. (Related: It’s also the book that derailed my Great American Novel Project for the better part of a year and a half.) To me, reading Faulkner is like trying to wade through the most impenetrable swamp in the South for a year and a half straight, and while occasionally there are some cool things during your trek, and the scenery’s great, by the time that year and a half is up, you’re soaked through, miserable, and have been so focused on the task at hand that you’ve completely missed the signposts alongside the swamp telling you a) what’s ahead of you, b) why you’re in the swamp and c) how to get out. Normally I like dense writing–two of my favorite books are Possession and The Secret History–but apparently I’ve come to the outer reaches of my limit, and Faulkner is it.

Thank god for Shreve, Quentin’s roommate at Harvard, the ultimate recipient of the tale the Compsons are weaving in Absalom, Absalom!: his entire purpose in the novel seems to be to repeat back to Quentin what he’s been saying in plainer terms for the benefit of the reader. (There are actual points in the narrative where Shreve interrupts in order to say, “So what you’re saying is . . .?”–so the next time your writing instructor dings you on an As You Know, just tell them that Faulkner did it, too.) When you’re spending all your energy trying to figure out which character Faulkner is even talking about, it’s tough to simultaneously follow his metaphors. To be fair to Faulkner, that’s part of his goal–the obscuration of Absalom‘s events is a necessary part of his exploration of how we attempt to reconstruct the past. As always with Faulkner, the prose is incredible. The plot, once you sort it all out, is compelling. And the broader Southern themes of the novel–slavery as the downfall of the South, the region’s inability to come to grips with its own demise, the myriad versions of Southern history and what they all mean–are fascinating even now that many of them have been well-trod. (At the time Absalom, Absalom! came out and those themes were fresh, this novel–and particularly its closing lines, which are a neat summary of Faulkner and his entire oeuvre for me–must have been thrilling.) Intriguingly enough, Faulkner has said that the “true version” of his characters’ history is there in the pages, between the lines, for any reader conscientious enough to go back and look for it. All the same, I probably won’t be that reader.

Previously: The Great Gatsby
Next: the first book of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, The 42nd Parallel

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The Great American Novel Project: The Great Gatsby, or The Perfect Novel?

December 27, 2011 § 5 Comments

The Great Gatsby is one of those books that I come back to every few years, and every time, it’s like reading a completely different book. When I was fifteen, it was about my nostalgia for a world that had passed, all pretty words and glamorous parties and marrying for money and spending afternoons drunk in New York City. When I was 19 and a brand-new English major in a cold, lonely city, it was all about literary symbolism: the color gold, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, the green light. When I was 24, it was about ambition, about longing, about getting what you want or being forever dissatisfied–all things that, as an about-to-be-minted college graduate, I was preoccupied with. And now, at 28 . . . well, I’m about due for a re-read, aren’t I?

I have no stake in the philosophical dinner party debate over whether The Great Gatsby is a perfect novel, or whether a perfect novel exists at all. If Gatsby isn’t perfect, it’s the closest thing we have to it. The fact that it can be read on so many different levels, the way it has so many layers, how I can find so many different ways to read it–that’s what lifts it above everything else. I can foresee reading Gatsby every five years for the rest of a very long life, and have it be a different book every time. (Huck Finn falls pretty close to that criteria, too, coincidentally enough–I think I could re-read it every ten years and have it be a different book every time.)

And this paragraph, Jesus Christ:

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

Y’all know I’m a liberal, so my potential for effortless patriotism is limited. But those closing paragraphs of Gatsby get me every time, leaving me in awe of the suddenly illuminated huge and beautiful country we live in, how it must have been to see it through those fresh new sailors’ eyes. I don’t believe in the American Dream, but Gatsby (the man, not the novel) sells me on it in those final lines–at least for a moment or two, before I sigh, savoring them, and slowly shut the book once again.

Previously: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Next: Absalom! Absalom!

The Great American Novel Project: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

December 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

“The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain

When I first started this project, Huck Finn was in the news for reasons you wouldn’t expect: publishers had put out a new copy of the book where all of Twain’s usage of the n-word was replaced by the word “slave.” It reminded me of a 1955 movie made out of the book, where producers, hoping to avoid offense, omitted any references to slavery and turned Jim into a white man. To a modern audience, the problems with that approach are obvious, but apparently the word-replacement approach–just a less egregious version of the same thing–was less overtly troubling, because this isn’t the first time it’s been tried.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer–temperamental about my words, protective of them–that the whole thing sets me off. To a serious writer, the difference between one word and another is big. If Twain used the n-word, that’s because he meant to use the n-word. If he meant “slave,” he would have written “slave.” Don’t think it’s happenstance: Twain used the n-word repeatedly on purpose. He used it to make a statement about the society Huck Finn takes place in, that it’s so racist that even the characters we’re supposed to like use it over and over without regret, right up through the last chapter. Even minor changes to the text of the story can affect the author’s intention, and in the case of Huck Finn, those “minor changes,” the alteration of one word, seriously alter Twain’s intent: it makes Huck less ambiguous than he’s supposed to be, putting more emphasis on the “high-spirited scamp” side of his personality and less on the “product of his society (even though he would claim otherwise)” side. (It also shows that Jim is either patient or oppressed enough to put up with it, both significant aspects of the book.) The fact that Huck considers himself a loner, Dottie, a rebel is a major focus of the book; by changing the n-word to “slave” we significantly undermine the idea that this isn’t strictly true. At the end of the book, Huck claims that he’s planning on heading out west to rid himself of the burden of polite society, but since the ambiguous nature of his character has already been made clear, we can imagine that his future will end up quite a bit differently than he does. By changing just one of Twain’s words to something less offensive, we also change our conception of the book’s setting and characters. It’s not just a minor change.

Yes, Adventures of Huck Finn is a problematic book. Maybe as times change, we should examine the role it plays it the classroom–as a “classic” example of an anti-racist text–and look at other options that could fulfill similar functions. Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, August Wilson and Toni Morrison can cover similar ground and allow black writers to speak for themselves rather than relying on a white author to interpret for them. Maybe because of Huck Finn‘s complexities and controversy and capability to offend, it’s a book that should wait until college, where lit courses are largely optional and everyone in the class is there by choice. And certainly we should think about the way teachers present the novel, how their use of (or their allowing their students to use) the n-word in class can implicitly condone the same prejudices that Twain was hoping we’d react against. But changing an author’s words–their story, their intent–and wiping away a tiny chunk of history is never an acceptable option.

Previously: Moby-Dick

Next: The Great Gatsby

The Great American Novel Project: Moby-Dick, or How Melville Spent One Million Hours Researching Whales and Now Wants to Share Everything He Knows with You

February 26, 2011 § 4 Comments

Like with The Scarlet Letter, somehow I’d escaped both high school and college without reading Moby-Dick. I have a feeling that Moby-Dick‘s star is on the wane–not only did I not read it in college, but neither did any of my English major friends. In fact, I never heard of it being assigned in an English class at all. If we read Melville, it was one of his shorter works–“Bartleby the Scrivener” or Benito Cereno. Maybe our professors, who grew up force-fed Moby-Dick, had developed an aversion to it and thought it was boring. Maybe they felt it was less relevant to a modern audience than it had been to theirs. Or maybe it was just too long for the average English class–at a very dense and symbol-packed 500 pages, Moby-Dick is just too long to cram into the kind of survey-based class that likes to fly through novels in a week or two. (It took me a month, ten days of which were while I was on vacation and had nothing to do but sit in the sand and read, and I still felt like I missed a lot because I went through it too quickly.)

Also like with The Scarlet Letter, I’d heard that Moby-Dick was one of the most boring books in the American canon. I was happy to find out this was only half-true. Let me put it this way: Moby-Dick is 135 chapters long. Approximately 50 chapters of that is actual plot–call me Ishmael, Captain Ahab’s monomania, the hunt for the White Whale, et cetera. That part was actually interesting. (Did you know that Ishmael and Queequeg were probably having gay sex? True facts.) The other 85 chapters are pure lecture. We get a chapter on the head of the whale, a chapter on the tail, a chapter on different types of whales, a chapter on how you decide who owns a whale, a chapter on how you turn whales into oil, a chapter on ambergris . . . Eighty-five chapters! What I was surprised to find in this mess of didacticism is that Melville can turn a pretty sentence. Example:

“The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation. There is his home; there lies his business, which a Noah’s flood would not interrupt, though it is overwhelmed with all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.”

Sequences like that make me just want to give up as a writer. There’s no way I could top it. But you know what makes me want to give up as a reader? Eighty-five chapters worth of essays on whales. Moby-Dick is the kind of book that feels like a workout with a sadistic personal trainer–after it’s all over, I’m glad I did it, but damn, did I work for it.

Previously: The Scarlet Letter

Next up: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Great American Novel Project: The Scarlet Letter

February 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

My only exposure to Hawthorne thus far was a series of his short stories I had to read for my freshman year American lit class. For the most part I was unimpressed, and now, almost ten years later, most of his vaguely creepy, Romantic takes on Puritanism blend together in my head, like Poe with more religion and less pay-off. Still, there were a few of his stories–“Rappaccini’s Daughter,” for example–that intrigued me enough not to swear him off entirely. It wasn’t a coincidence, either, that Hawthorne’s stories that I didn’t hate were largely the ones where women played a large role, I was cautiously optimistic about The Scarlet Letter, despite its reputation for being the bane of most high schoolers’ short existences.

“Cautiously optimistic” turned out to be the right approach. There are plenty of aspects of The Scarlet Letter that will annoy the modern reader: its overwrought symbolism, the constant gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts to express anguish, its monotonous repetition of the same dreary themes. I can see why so many high schoolers hate it. But for a former English major with a slightly higher tolerance for boredom and a little bit of a puritanical streak, I found some things to like, too–the foremost being Hawthorne’s proto-feminist take on the sexual double standard and his explorations of how Hester’s transcending society’s boundaries led a greater degree of enlightenment. I’m not sure I could have handled five hundred pages of The Scarlet Letter, but given its short length, it was a fairly painless entry into this project.

Next up: my most-dreaded book of the whole project, the legitimately 500-page Moby-Dick.

The Great American Novel Project

February 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

I started this project back in November. The goal: to read all the novels on Wikipedia’s Great American Novel list. For the sake of simplicity, because the list is constantly changing–apparently the criteria for what makes a Great American Novel is an issue at least as contentious as Roe v. Wade or the Israeli/Palestinian conflict–I’m working from the version that was up when I started the project:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
  • Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick
  • Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
  • William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
  • John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy
  • John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
  • J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
  • Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March
  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
  • Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow
  • Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections

Since I’ve already read them, I’m crossing Huck Finn, Gatsby, Catcher, and To Kill a Mockingbird off the list immediately. That left me with nine books to get through before I lose interest in this project (well, technically 11 since the U.S.A. trilogy is three books). At this point, I’ve finished The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick, and I’ll be moving on to Absalom! Absalom! as soon as I finish The Master and Margarita.

Yes, I am ashamed of the fact that I was an English major and a lifelong book nerd who’s closing in on 30 and still hasn’t made it to Steinbeck and Nabokov. And yes, I am updating my blog about books on a Saturday night.

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