May 2016 Books


White Teeth, Zadie Smith

So good. Ripe for a lot of lit class analysis about the evolution of family mythology and the immigrant experience and the complex web of class/race/religious issues in the UK, but that’s not super interesting for me to talk about.1

Anyway, at the time of writing this, I’ve finished Zadie Smith’s novelistic output and all of her books have been engaging in the can’t-put-down, willing-to-stay-up-stupidly-late-to-finish sense. The use of colloquial language definitely helps there, but it’s also just that her storytelling priorities seem to align with mine. Even in books that I list among my favorites, there are going to be some paragraphs of, say, scenery description that are just kind of, “ugh, who cares” to me. Not so for any of Smith’s writing, I think, where pretty much every detail seems either necessary or interesting. White Teeth does a lot of shifting between characters’ perspectives and manages to do them all justice; all of the main characters come across as specifically flawed and specifically sympathetic2 and while I could probably read more about each of them, there wasn’t anyone for whom I was like, “let’s just slog through this guy’s chapters to get to the next person” nor did anyone feel like the author’s favorite. Although oh god, all of Irie’s struggles wrt her body image were super painful to read and given the recurrence of that theme with Zora in On Beauty and the realness/specificity of those feelings, one wonders how self-insert3 those characters might be.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

Finally spurred to read this by Penny Dreadful’s inclusion of the character, although I have been a fan of the Jekyll & Hyde musical for, like, half of my life at this point4.

And man, it turns out that Jekyll & Hyde the novella is super weird—not in a very interesting way, mind–and different from what has trickled down into pop culture. The story is mostly told from Jekyll’s friend Utterson’s perspective, then Utterson reading a note left by mutual friend Dr. Layton, and then Dr. Layton hearing/reading Jekyll’s account? It’s not that the Chinese box structure is so unusual (Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the preeminent example of in my head, but of course there are many others), but I’m just not sure what purpose it serves here.

Mostly, I’m super curious how the plot came across to Victorian readers who wouldn’t have already known the twist—like, is that an expected twist in the genre? Who was Stevenson’s target demographic anyway and what genre was this considered to be? I tried to look at it with fresh eyes, as someone for whom the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” does not yet mean anything, and the best alternate reading I can come up with is that Utterson/the reader suspects that Jekyll is secretly gay and Hyde is his young lover? And the inclusion of Hyde in his will is either because he is legit smitten or Hyde is blackmailing him? But, of course, there may be a different sort of modern bias there; not sure the Victorians were as likely to scour every form of media for gay subtext.

“You do not understand my position,” returned the doctor, with a certain incoherency of manner. “I am painfully situated, Utterson; my position is a very strange—a very strange one. It is one of those affairs that cannot be mended by talking.”

“Jekyll,” said Utterson, “you know me: I am a man to be trusted. Make a clean breast of this in confidence; and I make no doubt I can get you out of it.”

“My good Utterson,” said the doctor, “this is very good of you, this is downright good of you, and I cannot find words to thank you in. I believe you fully; I would trust you before any man alive, ay, before myself, if I could make the choice; but indeed it isn’t what you fancy; it is not so bad as that; and just to put your good heart at rest, I will tell you one thing: the moment I choose, I can be rid of Mr. Hyde. I give you my hand upon that; and I thank you again and again; and I will just add one little word, Utterson, that I’m sure you’ll take in good part: this is a private matter, and I beg of you to let it sleep.”

Still, how else does it come across when you’re not looking for a sci-fi/supernatural twist? Especially when Hyde looks completely different from Jekyll—in a faithful adaptation of the novella, you probably wouldn’t even have them played by the same actor. Hyde is younger and shorter and apparently different enough in the face that people who know Jekyll can interact with him without recognizing him as the same person. Which is maybe the weirdest thing about reading this 100+ years later; it seems like Hollywood/Broadway/etc.’s choice to have Jekyll/Hyde be played by the same person (generally) strengthens what Stevenson is trying to say about the duality of man more than, like, his original choice? There’s probably a whole thing to be said here about posterity and how the public perception of a work of art ends up becoming more Important/True/Real than the original work itself and it may come up again in the June books section because of Chuck Klosterman’s (disappointing) But What If We’re Wrong?5

The Bottle Imp, Robert Louis Stevenson

This short story happened to be included in the edition of Jekyll & Hyde that I own. As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m not super into short stories, so my reaction to this is mostly, whatever. Kind of notable in that the characters are Hawaiian and Stevenson was not and it seems relevant to the current cultural discussion of representation in the media? Would Stevenson (a white guy) be praised for choosing to write about native Hawaiians when he could have just as easily used white Scotsmen for the same story or would he be criticized for (as a white guy) not truly understanding the Hawaiian experience? I don’t know. It is cool that the story’s protagonist just gets a happy ending rather than some sort of tired morality thing about the consequences of making deals with the Devil.

The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith

Solid, but also distressing as I’ve already been feeling a lot of discomfort in terms of how I engage with celebrity culture and this focuses on that to some extent, as a novel about a guy who makes his living off collecting and selling autographs. It perhaps does not dissect celebrity worship as much as I’d want it to, or at least, not in the direction that would feel most satisfying or enlightening or something (perhaps there is no such direction). Still, Zadie Smith + Jews!

Selected quote:

Alex thought Joseph resented him, and Alex resented Joseph for resenting him. Neither of them spoke of their resentments, real or imagined. And both of them resented that. As a formula for the slow disintegration of a friendship, the above is practically mathematical.

The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi

I enjoyed this while reading it, but the ending was kind of dissatisfying in an “oh, I guess that’s just…it?” way.  I never felt like I really understood the narrator, Karim; the whole book was spent with me being like “dude, what is your deal” and that question was either never answered or I was too dumb to see the answer. I wonder if it’s just a thing with Kureishi’s writing style, as I felt similarly about the main character in My Beautiful Laundrette, which he wrote the screenplay for, although there I just assumed it was because of the medium not letting us see inside his head. But nope, this is a first-person narrative and that level of opacity is still there. There seems to be a weird disconnect between Karim’s thoughts, actions, and dialogue where I just can’t quite comprehend how he gets from point A internally to point B externally. And this passage may be describing that:

I looked at Mum and Dad once more. ‘They still love each other, can’t you see that?’ I said to Eva. Or perhaps I didn’t say it; perhaps I just thought it. Sometimes you can’t tell when you’ve said something or just had it in your head.

In which case it’s probably intentional, and not necessarily a case of me being dumb or Kureishi not being effective or whatever, but still, it’s frustrating.

Selected quote:

I put my arms out in front of me so the dog wouldn’t rip my hands off. I must have looked like a sleepwalker, but as I wanted my hands for other purposes I didn’t care about this Baroque pose, though as a rule I cared fanatically about the way I looked, and behaved as if the entire world had nothing better to do than constantly observe me for slips in a very complicated and private etiquette.

Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy

Small liberal arts colleges never change. And once you’ve graduated from a small liberal arts college, you probably find yourself both comforted and repulsed by the intensity with which issues are debated within the small liberal arts college bubble that, like, no one outside the bubble gives a shit about. And so this book—a satire of that academic culture, revolving around the departmental drama following the non-renewal of a literature professor’s appointment—is brilliant but also oh god, the culture that I’m still sort of embedded in two years after graduation because of social media is so dumb and I love it and I hate it and remember when there was a whole Thing about changing the name of the Women’s Union to Feminist Alliance because the term women is seens as non-inclusive and reinforcing the gender binary but the term feminist has a history of non-intersectionality and frankly WU (pronounced “woo”) is catchier than FemAll and F.U. (for Feminist Union) would be seen as too militant and it looks like they ended up sticking with Women’s Union but fucking Christ, it is so dumb

Selected quote:

It was the perennial quarrel, in short, between Geneva and Heidelberg, between Heidelberg and Augsburg, none the less passionate for the smallness of the arena and the fact that nobody cared, beyond the immediate disputants, how the issues were resolved. To whom did it matter, certainly not to the students, whether the college were to drop the term progressive and substitute experimental on page three of the catalogue? Yet to these men of conscience and consistency the point was just as cardinal as the spelling of catalogue (catalog?). Under the pretense of objectivity was a fighting word or spelling to be lowered from the masthead and a flag of truce run up? The defenders of the progressive citadel were always on the lookout for a semantic Trojan horse in any seemingly harmless resolution introduced by the enemy. And quite correctly so, for the enemy was cunning. Who would have suspected that a motion to drop the old engraved Latin diploma and replace it with a simple printed certificate, in English, announcing that the holder had completed the course of studies, concealed an entering wedge for a movement to bring Latin back into the curriculum? Many of the ultra-reform party had voted Aye to this suggestion, not seeing the infernal conservative logic behind it, which was that a college had no right to bestow a Latin diploma on a student incapable of reading it, and hence did not really rank with the old conferrers of the sheepskin but in a separate class, along, it was suavely argued, with the trade schools and hairdressing colleges, which made no pretenses to Roman universality, to the nihil humani a me alienum implicit in the traditional scroll.

Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney

This is written entirely in the second person, which seems like it would come across as super obnoxious and gimmicky, but suprisingly no? I’m not totally sure what it achieved—if pressed, I could theorise about what it was intended to achieve, but I’m not sure if the experience of reading it was actually any different than it would have been had it been written in first-person, other than the continual feeling of “wow, this isn’t as obnoxious as it could be.” There is going to be an aspect of relatibility in any narrative of “recent graduate of prestigious college with vague artistic ambitions but not necessarily the talent or drive to pursue those ambitions has a lot of thoughts about the modern age, isolation, the meaninglessness of life, etc.” even if the “modern age” in question is, like, the most ’80s version of the ’80s and I have no experience with cocaine.

Selected quote:

“Things happen, people change,” is what Amanda said. For her that covered it. You wanted an explanation, an ending that would assign blame and dish up justice. You considered violence and you considered reconciliation. But what you are left with is a premonition of the way your life will fade behind you, like a book you have read too quickly, leaving a dwindling trail of images and emotions, until all you can remember is a name.

(God, this passage. Currently such a struggle.)

1. In part, because I am intellectually lazy and don’t necessarily do close readings of every book I read for fun. But mostly because that sort of analysis would neither be original nor something that I feel strongly about, and I think it needs to be at least one of those two to be worthwhile. ^
2. Not main characters and mostly unsympathetic: the Jewish intellectual couple, the Chalfens, are awful in a very real and semi close-to-home (i.e. not quite my home, but possibly my relatives’ or neighbors’ or family friends’) way. ^
3. And the answer could be: only in the sense that they share the author’s gender and racial make-up, as all of the pictures I’ve seen of Smith show her to be thin and, like, actress-level attractive. But who knows, maybe she had a difficult puberty or maybe individual women’s body image issues do not always seem rational or warranted to observers because blah blah blah we’re all victims of the patriarchy and the often impossible-to-achieve standards of beauty perpetuated by the media. ^
4. I, um, maybe dressed up as my interpretation of the David Hasselhoff interpretation of the character for Halloween when I was 12 or 13? It involved bisecting my face in black eyeliner, putting half of my hair up, shredding one leg of a pair of pants, and staining one half of a white button-down shirt with ketchup, maybe, to evoke this glorious musical number. ^
5. Right, one of the most interesting takeaways from the Klosterman book is that the way people analyze The Matrix now (and in the future) is probably going to be different than the way we analyzed it when it first came out, in light of the Wachowki siblings both transitioning genders in the intervening 17 years. Certainly you can make a connection between the concept of realizing that you’re living in a simulated reality and realizing that you’re living in the wrong body, and that seems like a totally valid interpretation given what we know about the writers and how we usually intepret art. And yet. In 1999, when the poster for The Matrix said “Written and Directed by The Wachowski Brothers” and trans issues were not as prevalent in the media, this connection would have felt like a stretch, probably dismissed as wish-fulfillment by a few trans viewers who wanted the movie to speak to them on a personal level. There is the whole school of thought that art should be interpreted independently of the artist (in terms of their personal life, historical context, etc.) and I guess depending how you already felt about that, the situation with The Matrix either ends up lending more or less legitimacy to that viewpoint; disregarding the artist means that your interpretation probably won’t get proven wrong over time, but it also means that you can miss out on a lot of layers of meaning. But wrt Jekyll & Hyde: I suppose it’s unlikely that we will get any new revelations about Stevenson’s personal life, but it is sort of interesting to think about what passages would gain extra significance or what new level of meaning you would be able to find if you suddenly found out that RLS was, say, a closeted gay man.

Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame. It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations than any particular degradation in my faults, that made me what I was and, with even a deeper trench than in the majority of men, severed in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s dual nature.

(This passage. Mostly, this passage.)

I mean, you can definitely already find a lot of scholarly works on the homoerotic undertones of Jekyll & Hyde anyway, but I suspect the personal life revelations would be necessary for that to become the accepted mainstream reading. Instead, the Scottish vs English allegory seems more “legitimate” because we do know that RLS was Scottish. But is either more or less supported by the text itself? IDK.   ^


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