Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Returning to Literature

I used to read a lot in college, though it was mostly critical theory, political treatises and manifestos, gender and race studies literature, and history books. I did read a decent amount of fiction for classes. Ever since I started law school, though, I basically stopped reading any literature on my own.

Most of my time was spent reading case law and journal articles. And while I read a lot in my spare time, I was reading world news, technology news, and various magazines instead of diving into a novel. And of course, I spent a lot of time playing videogames, watching sports, TV, movies, and listening to music. There is really only so much media you can consume on a regular basis.

Looking back, choosing to forego regularly reading fiction was a bad choice. And after I finished taking the CA Bar Exam, I promised myself that I would start reading again. After a few months of sticking with it, I feel curiously re-engaged to all of the same philosophical and political discourses that were second nature to me just a few years ago. Here are a few recent books I've read with some rambling, gut reactions about each.


Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932): Many people read Brave New World in high school, but we read Orwell's 1984 instead. I definitely see a lot of overlap between the two, but Huxley's futuristic society speaks much more to modern consumer capitalism and its maximation of "happiness" (defined as the consumption of goods) while Orwell's world of big-brother speaks more to totalitarianism. And given where and when I grew up, the subject matter of Huxley's book seems more applicable or relevant -- at least for now.

The world this novel creates is stunning, especially when you consider it was published more than seventy years ago. It is a profound parody of the utopian society. But sadly, whatever this novel generates in foresight is, in my estimation, overshadowed by its utter lack of subtlety and nuance. The dialogue, character development, and narrative structure leave much to be desired in terms of depth. Actually, as the novel progresses, the story devolves into a number of (contrived) episodes created just so that Huxley can give us another heavy handed dose of what's on his mind. The lack of subtlety saturates every part of the novel. The characters' names, for instance, are so loaded (Lenina, Marx, Mr. Savage . . . .) that they end up negating what little character development there is. I kept getting the feeling that Huxley didn't think we were smart enough to pick up on his point, you know, as if we were so socially conditioned that we woudln't understand him.

This makes me wonder if Brave New World would have been a more brilliant short story or novella accompanied by a series of critical essays on "desire" in the Industrial era. With that said, I admit that the critical theorist in me would argue the same thing about every novel! Nevertheless, Huxley seems more architect than carpenter.

I was especially put off by John Savage, a character exposed to the "modern" world but has also been brought up among the "Indians" without modern social conditioning. John is your run of the mill outcast, but Huxley makes him a romantic, Christ-like figure that needs to suffer (perhaps for more than his own sins).

My first objection to the character is part superficial. Huxley tells us that John found a copy of the works of Shakespeare (I actually laughed aloud when I read that part of the story because it seemed TOO EASY), and subsequently learned it like scripture. But John seems to quote Shakespeare for virtually every other sentence. And while we are assured that John is sincere in his use of Shakespeare because it was the only vehicle for a spectrum of emotion unavailable to him in the "modern" world -- I'm not so sure Huxley's copious amounts of Shakespeare quotes was as sincere. The volume of material quoted from Shakespeare just devalues the passages and their effect. It felt like name-dropping.

The more urgent problem I had with John is that he represents a far too simplistic binary vision of modernity. John, the token outsider in both of his cultures, feels torn between these TWO worlds. In fact, a number of characters are pulled between two extremes. At times I wonder if this is my hindsight bias, but a lot of art and literature of the time managed to tackle this subject matter in a much more complex way by problematizing modernity. This story shouldn't be about modernity with a capital "M" -- but multiple modernities with several, conflicting, lower-case "m's."

If you don't believe me, try reading the last few chapters of Brave New World, one of which feature a conversation between John and one of the world controllers. The conversations lack nuance. Huxley just puts all of his cards on the table and doesn't leave much to chew on. And as much as I hate referring to this movie, the conversation between John and the controller reminds me of the almost unbearable conversation in The Matrix Reloaded between Neo and the Key Maker. It went on way too long and it tried to explain everything, presumably becuase viewers were too stupid to figure it out on their own.



The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925): When I started this novel, I knew that it wasn't a complete novel. Kafka never finished it, giving it to his editor/friend Max Brod in 1920. The Trial was published posthumously in 1925 after it was organized as coherently as possible. But despite the somewhat meandering, unfinished feel of the book, I think its abrupt, disjointed timeline really help in the long run because they reflect the legal process itself.

Generally, the novel is about Josef K, who wakes up to find two policemen arresting him. Josef K is not charged or told why he is being arrested. The novel follows Josef K as he is pushed through a cold, dehumanizing legal system, which offer process, but little information. Obviously, the subject matter is grim -- but it is tame by Kafka standards.

I consider this a must-read for anybody starting a legal career. It is really easy to lose sight of how mysterious and anxiety-inducing the legal process can be for the actual people who have cases and controversies. And the lasting effect of this novel is its ability to force me to think about the underlying realities WHO this process is happening for.

I found one thing in the "Publisher's Note" amusing. Kafka wrote to his friend Max Brod: "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread. . . . Your's Franz Kafka." And the publisher to the edition responds, "We will never know if Kafka really meant for Brod to do what he asked . . . ." I'm not quite sure how I would feel if Kafka's last request had been honored, but there sure is something beautiful in finality (and, consequently, something empty in publishers).


A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980): While I mentioned that the previous novel was published posthumously, the background to John Kennedy Toole's novel is really another character in the story. This was Toole's first novel and nobody gave it an honest read. He shopped it around unsuccessfully and later committed suicide in 1969. His mother shopped the book for years and brought it past Walker Percy (who wrote a fantastic foreword to my edition), who gave it a chance. And since then all we can wonder is what kind of literary career Toole would have had if he was still around. This dark background gives even greater depth to this dark comedy, which won the Pulitzer in 1981.

The other interesting thing about this book is that it is set in New Orleans, so you can't help but read the book while thinking about all that's happened there in recent years. A Confederacy of Dunces does not paint a glowing picture of New Orleans, however. In fact, when it was published, the book was not well received by many in New Orleans.

The book revolves around Ignatius J. Reilly, who I can only describe as a mix between the comic-book store owner from The Simpson's and Don Quixote. He's slothful, 30, and still living with his mother. She puts up with his delusional fantasies of history, politics, and morality, at least for the most part. Ignatius feels that the modern world lacks "theology and geometry," and prefers Middle Age philosophy. Ignatius, who up until now has found a way to avoid manual labor and maintain his sense of intellectual superiority, finds himself forced to find a job to repay a debt from an auto collision. Each job, of course, is a disaster and Ignatius blames a fate-like power ("Fortuna") instead of himself for his bad luck.

This book has brilliantly written dialogue and the tension generated by Ignatius' complete lack of reality made me enjoy the impending train wreck. I suppose my only (very, very minor) criticism is that Ignatius was so much of a farce that I couldn't put up with him. This is definitely a character you end up hating -- like that weenie in Saving Private Ryan, Upham.


Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940): This is the first book I've read by Arthur Koestler and I admit that I never heard of the book until I found it on the Modern Library's reading list. In fact, it was only a few weeks after I finished the book when I realized it was part of a trilogy.

In contrast to Brave New World, this novel seemed to have so much going on behind the story itself. The novel focuses on Rubashov, a Bolshevik who helped create the Stalinist regime. But by 1938, Rubashov finds himself falling victim to one of the public trials/purges in Moscow.

The novel has a slow pace, and Koestler does a masterful job of speeding up, slowing down, and breaking time. It is extremely effective and puts more of a burden on the reader to understand the implications of what's happening at any given point. The chapters about Rubashov's interrogation are riveting. In particular we see two characters who could be brothers, but find themselves at opposite ends of the interrogation table. The real sadness is that Rubashov knows that his interrogator will soon be in Rubashov's seat.
It is amazing how a novel about a prisoner in solitary confinement has a few great characters. Rubashov, for example, communicates with his neighbor by tapping a code for each letter into the stone wall. Communication is sparse between the two, but it speaks volumes.

I was constantly reminded that Rubashov felt--at least partly--that his impending confession and execution was an inevitable result of the Stalinist regime. And, with fatalistic disregard for himself, Rubashov appears to sacrifice himself so the gears of the regime can continue grinding away. And that, for me, is a key insight about Koestler's novel. Perhaps the most dangerous type of control is the kind we desire. This is called hegemony.

This is a great, relatively short read.

1 comment:

Bruce said...

Unfortunately, I haven't read any of these books so I can't give much feedback. But I hope you continue commenting on your reads. Then maybe once I'm out of school I'll pick some of these books up.