Ernest Hemingway – Men Without Women

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Hemingway is a fascinating character. Many tell stories, but Hemingway lived in an epic poem. He traveled the worlds, participated in wars, hunted, fished, went through four marriages only to commit suicide. If I needed source material for an epic tragedy, I wouldn’t need to look further. I wouldn’t even need to add themes – masculinity, romance and war are constant themes in Hemingway’s life. This fascinating Hemingway is the only good thing about Men Without Women.

Nowadays, Hemingway’s prose reads more like a parody of realism. He didn’t understand the purpose of it. When he talks about his Iceberg Theory, he talks about hiding things from the reader. Yet holding back information isn’t good storytelling. It’s how cheap thrillers keep us hooked by hinting that if we invest more time, a revelation will come. The purpose of minimalism is to reveal using few words.

Carver came years later and saw it through. When you read Carver, you don’t need to dig deep to find buried ideas. Rather, Carver’s bare prose makes everything float up to the surface. If something is hidden or implied, it means that the mere fact of it being hidden is important. At the end of “One More Thing”, Carver tells us the man doesn’t know what to say. That’s enough to show us how confused, how broken that man is. If Hemingway wrote that story, it would end with “The Man said.”, as if not telling the reader what he said is somehow more profound than showing the man is at loss for words.

These aren’t stories of beginnings, middles and conclusions. They’re snapshots of life, which is fine. “In Another Country” is a story that goes nowhere, but it’s so lifelike. That story must be close to him since it deals with war wounds. He’s not worried about being obvious there, but just let the images stand on their own. In it, there are machines that are supposed to cure body problems. Despite being the first of their kind, there are images of before-and-after. It’s not a complex image and perhaps not a very subtle one, but it’s more powerful than anything here.

“Hills Like White Elephants”, perhaps the most famous story here both shows where the style works and where it generally fails. It’s routinely praised for only implying it’s about abortion instead of saying it, but what’s the point? If you insert the word ‘abortion’ there, would it change the story drastically? Often that word dies to appear on the page, especially if you read an analysis of it. Hemingway writes it while struggling not to mention it for fear of being obvious. It’s like a band who stumbles upon a great melody, but repeats it only once in fear of being ‘poppy’ or ‘mainstream’.

This isn’t being concerned with literary quality, but with literary image. A story that aims for critically-approved traits like subtlety and depth misses the whole point. Even if you do switch the word ‘operation’ with ‘abortion’, the story would remain excellent. It’s really about a couple who reached a stumbling block in their relationship and don’t know where to go. There’s a reason they spend the whole story in a train station.

If you found his dialogue stiff and repetitive before, it’s even more so here. Some stories have sections like a broken record. “The Killers”, an otherwise excellent expression of fear of organized crime, has at least a page worth of unnecessary dialogue. Whenever Hemingway slips into this, you can feel him dying to say something but too afraid of ruining his image. He’s not completely awful in his style of omission. He said he left out the whole Chicago thing from the story and that’s a wise decision since namedropping the city wouldn’t add anything. Organized crime is scary regardless of where you’re at, but killers who repeat the same words ad nausam just don’t make sense.

Across his books, Hemingway’s flaws are as repetitive as the dialogue. Yet I keep reading because there’s something beating here. Discovering Hemingway lead an epic life isn’t surprising once you read a few pieces of prose by him. There’s distress, a desire for more, an obsession with concepts that fuels great people. It’s also not surprising Hemingway killed himself. Literature was an outlet for his troubles, but he couldn’t let it out.

Again, his Iceberg Theory stabs him in the back. Being a stereotypical man means bottling up your emotions and going fishing. Men are supposed to be tough and invulnerable. A vulnerable man can’t protect your children, after all. The stories try to dig into these masculine troubles, but end up conforming to stereotypes instead of breaking them.

The troubles are distinctly masculine. Violence and heartbreak often plague our characters. The violence is either for glory or for survival. As for women, their role is to provide a respite from this life. Perhaps that’s why the man in “Hills Like White Elephants” is so vague, anxious both to make the abortion and telling her she should choose. He’s afraid of losing her because if she’s gone, all he will have left is bullfighting and war. There’s glory in bullfighting and connection when you’re at war with your buddies, but these things can also be your downfall. Then again, in Hemingway’s stories women can also be the downfall.

Downfall is always around the corner, but the sense of dread which the characters feel never surfaces. Hemingway wants to imply so much that the stories feel like a person opening up about his break-up, only to shut up once he talks about the real reason. You, as a listener, is being teased and your curiosity isn’t satisfied. The person who needs a good talk is too afraid to speak, so he doesn’t get any help. The best stories here are “In Another Country” and “Now I Lay Me”. Hemingway lets himself go in these. There’s a bit more telling, but the emotional punch of them is powerful. Both can slot nicely into a Carver collection without a change in quality. The worst story is “The Undefeated”, where Hemingway flexes his jargon and ruins what could’ve been a beautiful story.

Don’t read Hemingway to say you’re reading the canon. Read Hemingway because you’re interested in his personality. None of his books that I’ve read are truly great (I’m yet to reach Bell though) but they each expand on his unique personality. If you find Hemingway an interesting enough person, read this. It’s not good, but like anything else he wrote it’s an essential piece of the puzzle.

2.5 men out of 5 women

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TumblrInAction, Feminism and The Straw Men

Look, I love TumblrinAction. The things they post are hilarious. They’re so disconnected from reality and logic, so dying to protect their little worldview that they will lash at everything. I talked to religious people who stick to their dogma, but it’s never like this. The religious often have a sense of doubt and humility. They think, “God shows me X and Y. The rest isn’t up for me”. The posts on TumblrinAction are different.

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Check this picture. This person is sure he has to resort to fanfiction because gay people are so hard to find in literature. Now, of course there will be less gay people than straight ones in literature. There are less gay people overall. It’s how I can’t expect Jews to feature in a lot of books, because Jews are a worldwide minority (Actually, they do have a presence in literature for some reason but that’s a different discussion). I only have to Google ‘Gay Literature’ and I get a huge Wikipedia article that even links to a page about gay literature from Singapore.

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In this one, they rail against nature. You were born blonde? Too bad! You appropriate cultures and are a racist! It’s funny how quickly this degenerates into saying people are X because of what they were born with. Isn’t that how racism works?

As hilarious as that subreddit is, we need to remember this. No matter how good an idea is, it can still attract morons. We will still eat our favorite type of food just because it has the potential to attract flies.

TumblrinAction is useful in displaying what went wrong with social justice. As an idea, it’s not bad. There’s no reason why one group should have more power over another because of illegetimate reasons. There’s no need to discriminate people based on skin color or sex or body structure.

Social justice, at its best, makes us question assumptions about society. Racism and sexism are dogmatic. They do not encourage discussion. They promote the idea that individuals belong in a certain group and that determines their value. These are inherent traits that can’t change. These are not fluid categories that change, nor do they have scientific basis. Sex exists, but it’s not our only trait. Race is complete pseudoscience.

Social justice should make us these question these assumptions and categories. It should question the main narrative, offers a new one but make sure the new one is also open to criticism. If you criticize something but refuse to check the flaws in your alternative, you do not care about improving things anymore. You only care about gaining power.

It’s similar to the Left/Right axis. The purpose stops being improvement or solving problems and it become defeating some enemy. That’s what we see in a lot of social justice discussions today. They’re not really discussing specific issues, but just look for ways to push the narrative of victimhood. That’s why EverydayFeminism publishes an article about how focusing on female pleasure is misogynistic (because it might! Just might put pressure on her) or the article about “People say Islam is homophobic because of racism”, sweeping away any evidence.

Criticism of these people can easily degenerate into what they are. If the only social justice content you encounter is from TumblrinAction, you’ll become just another raving extremist. I haven’t seen it in the subreddit itself, but I’ve seen people react this way to the content that gets published there.

A guy on Facebook keeps ranting about feminists, how they are all full of hate and uses examples from crazies on Tumblr. The irony is, MRA’s rarely talk about raped-males and such issues in a way that’s not a weapon against feminism (Dear MRA’s: Male victims of rape aren’t weapons in your silly little war). He cheered for the removal of feminism from history lessons. Apparently, since feminists offended him now it’s okay to remove facts from history lessons. There was even a post which could be summed up as “You got raped because it’s your own fault”.

This is not a person who believes in equality and is frustrated with what feminism became. I’m not going to get on anyone’s ass just because they don’t label themselves feminists. I tackle ideas, not people. Still, this is an example of a person who doesn’t care about equality or anything. It’s about defeating the feminists, the so-called hateful bigots. Issues aren’t discussed. Rather, he posts rants about feminists or by feminists and use it as proof they’re out to get our precious fluids.

We must be wary of being too attached to our ideas. The purpose of our ideas is to be useful. If an idea isn’t true nor useful, it must be discarded no matter how much we love it. Ideas are supposed to serve us. We shouldn’t serve ideas. The question rises: Some people will stick to ideas that only benefit themselves and might harm others, no?

Of course, but this is a different discussion, of selfishness vs. community. Even if what drives you is pure selfishness, you still need to avoid getting attached to ideas. You might miss ideas that will benefit you more.

The Right to Die

Without the right to die, there is no right to live.

The right to live means your life is yours. No one is allowed to take it from you. This right relies on the belief that life belongs to the individual. That’s why we find murder so horrible, but also why many are against capital punishment.

A duty is something you must do. You do not have a choice to give up a duty, unlike a right. People have the right to drive cars today, yet it doesn’t mean they must. Therefore, the right to live means you’re allowed to live, not must.

A person doesn’t choose whether to be born or not. Life is something that is forced upon us. The paradox is that we cannot chose between life and death unless we’re already alive. In order to choose, you have to exist first.

The problem is, if you choose not to live there is no easy way to do it. All suicide methods are painful. The quickest suicide methods are the most painful, while the less painful ones take a lot of time.

This is a terrible place to be. The damage from a bullet that missed the brain is horrible. Chocking on helium might not be so painful, but it takes time and the result of failure is equally horrifying. Either you’re living with a memory of trying to kill yourself, or you have brain damage.

Why force people into this position? A person didn’t choose to live. If the person finds that life isn’t satisfying or worthwhile, the person sees no way of improving his situation then he deserves a painless death. A person may not even be interested in improving. It could be that once you look back at your life, you decide you don’t want to carry that past anymore and want to die.

Suicidal people are trapped. Either you continue living and continue suffering, or you do something painful that might get rid of it. You do it all because two people were certain it was a good idea to force a child into the world.

Sure, everyone suffers in their life but not everyone finds the suffering worth it.

Suicide will hurt others, too, but is that a good reason?

We don’t expect a person to have sex with another if he doesn’t want to. Witholding sex is hurting. Sexual frustration can do its damage. Yet we don’t expect the attractive person to have pity sex just so the unattractive person will feel better. In fact, we push for saying that no matter how you act, nobody owes you sex.

I agree with this, and that’s why I take it further. Nobody owes you their life. A suicide of a close person is painful, but what would you prefer for that person to stay and stay in pain?

Suicide prevention is inheritenly selfish. People who don’t want you to kill yourself want it so they won’t experience grief and loss. That’s okay, because loss is terrible. Yet, if you truly cares about the well-being of a person, you wouldn’t try to ‘prevent suicide’. You would listen to the person and try to understand him. If you start off with the conclusion that suicide is bad, you’re not interested in listening.

Also, how do we know that the grief the people will feel is not as bad as the cotinous suffering the suicide person feels?

Euthanasia will actually ease the pain. Instead of impulsive suicides that will suckerpunch everyone, people will be able to prepare. There will be a date, and people could say their final goodbyes. It will also be cleaner, and the body can easily used for medical research or organ donation.

Nobody owes you anything, true. The world doesn’t owe you sex and it doesn’t owe you a fulfilling life (it also doesn’t owe you help in giving birth). If this is all true, then suicidal people owe us nothing and we shouldn’t prevent it. If we want to have a compassionate society that recognizes the pain of these tragic deaths, we need to have enough empathy to realize it’s okay to die.

Most people who object to this right, in my experience, have been successful and well-adjusted people. They assume that since life is working well for them, it therefore works well for everyone. It’s not. Some of us are born with a chemical imbalance, in the wrong environment, or made a series of mistakes we don’t want to carry any more.

We did not choose to live in the first place, so let us choose to die.
Let my people go.

Siri Hustvedt – The Sorrows of an American

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What a terrible title. I’m not with the Anti-Americanism thing. Among products that sell like hot cakes, Anti-Americanism is one of the most insulting ones. Still, the title feels like it came straight out of the American Exceptionalism everyone hates so much. America is an interesting country, sure, but the sorrows of an American aren’t more profound than others.

The novel avoids this exceptionalism, thankfully. In fact, it’s the opposite of what its title suggests. The novel is concerned with the emotional turmoil of many people. It seeks to understand them, even when they’re creeps. I doubt the disconnection between the self-centered album title and the thoughtful story is deliberate, though.

Siri rambles again. There is a center for these ramblings, something resembling plot. The ramblings are also less elegant than that novel about a summer without men. In that Siri could just ramble on and even if it felt like a digression, it was pleasant to read.

Sorrows has an oddly clunky prose. Imagine if someone stuck a lot of gears inside Auster’s writing. This style is supposed to flow easily and be easy to read. If it isn’t, then the abundance of words is frustrating. Why Hustvedt fails here when he succeeded later is hard to pinpoint. Maybe it’s because Sorrows is more descriptive.

Maze of thoughts tend to ramble, but their content always remains subjective. We get a lot of thoughts but few details. Sorrows tries to combine both. Sometimes it works. There are some objects in the story with great importance who needed detailed descriptions. Even there Hustvedt disappoints. She tries, but she doesn’t manage to come up with powerful imagery like McEwan.

There is also a family tree which is hard to keep track of. Here’s a tip for writers. Don’t just give a list of names of who was in the family and what’s their relation to the main character. Simply have them appear when their role in the story is relevant. Unless you’re into the study of naming, a name without something attached to it is a random collection of letters.

She’s better at keeping track of her present-day characters. They drive the story with their personalities and desires. A mystery kicks the novel off but it’s pushed to the side. Even when it’s solved, the resolution only exists to put all the characters in one place and have them clash. This is more exciting than just solving a murder mystery. Hustvedt has the tools to produce a nice psychological thriller.

The best parts is how she treats characters who otherwise would’ve been antagonists. The characters who create conflict, bother the protagonists and otherwise ruin everything for everyone aren’t defeated. The end of the conflict is understanding how the others think and why they do what they do, even if we still disapprove. In fact, we can’t really disapprove of someone’s behavior if we don’t understand it at first.

This is where Hustved deviates from Auster. Auster’s novels are a self-centered psychodrama. He traps you inside a character’s head and only shows his point of view. We’re not meant to necessarily side with the protagonist, but examine his flaws and strengths. Hustvedt wants to examine a large cast. It’s more admirable, but she’s not as successful as Auster is at his game. It’s the clunky prose again. The smooth prose is also what brought the characters in Summer Without Men to life. If only that one was as long as this novel.

Some have complained Hustvedt’s male protagonist sounds like a female. I found it so surprisingly male I wanted to take off points for it. Hustvedt’s prose is so similar to other male writers, but there’s not a touch of femininity in it. She writes it with a straight way and doesn’t show the female’s spin on it.

When Hustvedt describes how the protagonist lusts after a female, I almost felt like I’m reading another male author who needs to let out his fantasies. Hustvedt never crosses the border. She only describes the female the protagonist notices, and at points where he’ll notice something specific. One thing that Hustvedt describes well is those little moments where you notice a woman’s leg or hair or arm and aroused by it.

It’s not ‘wimpy’ or other such macho bullshit descriptions. Guys need girls. I’ve seen a lot of macho dudes who work so hard trying to achieve positive feedback from females. Without it, they’re nothing. Sexuality makes fools out of us all. Most people who are cool about it just happen to have it at the moment.

Hustvedt still sounds like Paul Auster in Sorrows, but that’s okay. Her attempts at understanding others and her wider scope means a different spin on that style. Without Auster’s smooth prose, though, it goes nowhere. The irony is that Sorrows has more purpose and a better story than Summer, but its prose keeps all the events distant. I’m still interested in what else Hustvedt has to offer, but this isn’t her masterpiece.

2.5 secrets out of 5

Margaret Atwood – Alias Grace

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Shitty authors often fill their books with useless details. It’s a sure sign the book is bad, but it’s understandable. If you have no idea what works, just throw everything in and hope something sticks. The problem with this shotgun approach in novels is that novels are whole pieces, and so it’s hard to isolate the good parts. Some good authors fill their books with details, and then chop off what doesn’t turn out to be a buried gun (see also: Chuck Palahniuk). Why do talented authors leave a lot of details is puzzling.

There’s no need to put a cover on Alias Grace. Buried in it is a brilliant mystery novel that uses it genre to create meaning, not just to create a puzzle. Atwood made a career of exploring the female experience, and the novel is almost the definitive one about our perception of women.

The phase ‘benevolent misogyny’ sounds crazy, and too bad the other term to describe it is ‘victim privilege’. These things exist, though. When people perceive you as lower than them, some of the ways they treat you differently will benefit you.

The perception of women was so narrow that it even excluded some terrible prejudices. Since women are viewed as pure until someone has sex with them, the idea they can be violent didn’t occur to people. The only reason Grace has a chance at redemption is because she’s a woman. No one thinks James may have been innocent, or cares what his reasons are. Boys will be boys, and James is just a boy who couldn’t control his violence.

The question of whether Grace is innocent or not isn’t answered, because the definitive answer isn’t the point. The point is what’s reader answer is and how much of it is based on Grace being female. The purpose of the puzzle is not the right answer but to examine our reactions.

Sexism is more complex than just making one group feel bad. Sexism goes both ways, with positive ideas about an oppressed group stemming from them being considered inferior.  Atwood realizes that and this is why Atwood is one of the best authors on the subject.

Even in her comfort zone where she writes about discrimination, she’s still great in it. Her treatment of the subject is never black and white. There are sexist pigs. There are women who accept their position in society. There are men with savior’s complex. The contradicting sexism takes place in the same mind. Dr. Jordan seeks to help the outcasts and the insane. When you give him a woman desperate for love and an ugly servant, he’s regressing to the sexism he grew up with.

A common problem in Historical Fiction is that the authors give the historical characters a modern mindset. A third wave feminist in the 1800’s looks silly unless we get a reasonable explanation how she stumbled on these ideas. It’s like a person who talks about digital property before the internet was invented.

Atwood avoids this flaw. She knows that people who grew up in a sexist environment will think sexist thoughts, including women. I’ve seen plenty of women spit misogyny, such as slut-shaming and victim-blaming today. Of course Grace will buy into her role as a woman, and of course Dr. Jordan will treat ugly women in disgust if that’s all he knows. Thankfully, as time goes on and events pile up, events that challenge these perceptions take place. That’s Grace’s murder role. It’s there for people to question their ideas about the sexes, both the negative and positive.

These ideas are fully explored, so at least Atwood’s shower of details isn’t meant to cover up a lack. It doesn’t make it any less puzzling. It’s not a difference in prose style. Even at her most maximalist Atwood retains a gift for sentences that flow easily. She overcomes the challenge of writing in a less modern style, but unnecessary details remain unnecessary no matter how easy they are to read.

Everything little thing is described. These are not the purposeful descriptions of McEwan. Atwood has no modus operandi for choosing what to describe and what not to. The effect is similar to the shopping lists of Dragon Tattoo. They revealed nothing about the characters. Women had an obsession with appearances back in the day, but these aren’t descriptions that are focused on the beauty of things.

If Atwood wanted to express the characters’ obsession with things looking good, then she’d focus on the beauty of things. The shopping list is a static technique. It exists to give you a blueprint of how a room looks like, but it’s only important so you’ll understand the characters’ movements. Beyond that, telling us the color of the rag is unimportant unless the color or the rag has importance.

Less annoying are the words of wisdom that are dropped between paragraphs. There are many quotable moments, but they feel like they came out of an unpublished Words of Wisdom. I’d love to read a book like this by Atwood. Every novel I read by her paints an intelligent women, but it’s not believable when it comes out of Grace’s mind. She’s portrayed either as enigmatic or simple-minded. Intelligence isn’t a trait, so why do these pieces of wisdom tell us about the character?

The fairly-complex structure isn’t as harmful as these techniques, but it also feels like an unnecessary complexity. The exchange of letters is interesting, but they belong in a story more focused on Dr. Jordan. His main role here is to show a contradictionary sexist mind. He has an interesting psychological arc that gets drowned in too many descriptions and fear of exploring him. He never becomes the presence that the men had in Life Before Man. He exists to show us how Grace looks from the outside. There are too many passages on his life in general that are more than necessary to show he exists beyond the plot, and not enough to make him like a hero of his own story.

The news clippings in the beginning of chapters are better. In fact, Atwood should’ve used them more. She could have used a variety of clippings to show the subtle differences between sexist opinions. She has enough negative capabiliy to paint sexists as human beings while not justifying them. More clippings would allow her to experiment with the sexist mind.

The flaws in this novel prevent it from being great, but it’s still a success. Atwood is too good at prose, so even the filler writing is pleasant to read. The treatment of Atwood’s favorite subject is also the best she did so far, and it’s only over-writing that keeps this behind Cat’s Eye. Atwood said she doesn’t see herself as a feminist writer, but her literature is the ideal feminist. She doesn’t present a cliched narrative of bad men and angelic women (which is just another form of sexism anyway). She uses feminisn to question how think about sex and gender roles. There’s a lot to learn from her.

3.5 simple murders out of 5