Graham Greene – The Power and the Glory

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Along with fat men, philosophy and Skrillex, Christianity is now one of the definitive expressions of the ‘uncool’. Call yourself a Christian, and you’re no fun, too moral, antisexual and you must be preachy (Unlike all those atheists writing a lot of books). We’ve heard how Christians dominate the media. For example, Slayer’s anti-religious music sells a lot less than Thousand Foot Krutch’s God-praising anthems.

Actually, that doesn’t really happen. The problem with putting yourself all the time in the position of the rebel and iconolast, you can’t realize when you’ve already won and create a new class of victims. Now, I’m not saying Christians are an oppressed group. Considering their size and the millions sects, it’s an absurd statement to make because there’s little way of knowing if they are. Nevertheless, Christianity is under attack.

Firs it begun in the Academia with Kierkagaard and eventually Existensliam. All around in culture you found opposition to Christianity, whether these are stories of how badly they treated Africans or loud rock songs against God. Reading this book in this time and age is so bizarre. A defense of Islam or even Judaism we can tolerate – these are the Other culture, so we refrain from judging. How can someone praise Christianity, especially Catholicism? Aren’t they all privileged?

It’s undoubtedly a Christian novel that not only features a priest of a lead character, but deals with themes in the Catholic perspective. While I’m not well-versed in Catholicism and I’m sure theologians can find many a hidden meaning, the familiar themes raise their heads. Fear, trembling, sin, guilt, forgiveness are the dominating themes here along with the pessimistic view of the religion.

Catholicism is a fairly pessimistic worldview. Although they object to suicide, their view of the world is negative. The world is a bad, harsh place full of suffering. Greene’s Mexico isn’t just a critique of how Catholics were treated, but how the world is for all of us. This Mexico is hostile to everyone. The Whisky Priest is as much of a plot device as he is a character, showing us the various lives of others.

Each of them suffer because of the world they’re in. If the priests are traitors, they are only traitors because they try to give meaning to the suffering in this world. In this world people, in a way, forsake meaning. The boy refuses to listen to his mom reading books, and so does not connect to the family. It is a land not concerned with meaning. When the police takes hostages and shoots them until they give up the priest, it’s a future critique of Charles Taylor’s ‘instrumental reason’, when we think only of how to solve a problem instead of how to fix it.

Yet it’s not a self-righteous novel at all. The idea of a ‘whisky priest’ is one that preaches virtue but cannot practice it. That’s because integral to Catholicism isn’t just sinning, but forgiveness. There is this struggle between the weight of sin which is the source of evil and forgiveness, which is supposed to be the source of good. Greene isn’t interested in preaching his religion but exploring and expressing this struggle.

That’s why, in the end, this novel isn’t exactly religious. It merely deals with themes which Catholics consider more important than, perhaps, making a lot of money or coming up with a new viral video. This focus on sin and forgiveness births a synthesis. Greene is deeply interested in human beings as they are.

Like the best realists, even when his characters can be dry he draws them sympathetic in their flaws. For the whole novel we’re encouraged to hate the police. Then at the end Greene gives them more than a voice, he gives them the ability to forgive and empathize. He recognizes ‘sin’ depends on who you ask, and that for the police being a Catholic priest is a sin. Greene gives the antagonist his moment of spotlight, pushes his humanity out and show us he’s capable of forgiveness. There’s still a bit of demonization there, although Greene tries hard not to do it. The uselessness of religion is talked about and demonstrated throughout the novel. When the bad guy goes off on his rant, there’s still a bit of narrow-mindedness there.

Similarly to the worst realists, Greene can have a problem of mood. The novel is gloomy, full of suffering and people struggling just to get by. He paints them with empathy and a bit of humanity, but he can’t get over the distance. In general realists have a hard time doing it. I still don’t understand completely what is it that allowed Carver to make you feel right next to his characters, but Greene can’t captures that. Perhaps it’s because Carver had his weird moments. Most of the variety in tone comes from drowning you in dialogues unlike this novel.

At least if Greene sticks to a single tone, he’s successful at expressing it. The story format helps it. Following a nameless protagonist defined by his role already gives an air of poetry and detachment from the physical world. His poetic yet sparse writing, a more flowery Carver helps with this. Even the landscape in the novel is sparse, with most villages containing little more than a few huts and the big city is defined mainly by having a ship there. His prose isn’t particularly unique. In fact, it follows the ordinary techniques of getting out and in of character’s heads. Thankfully he has enough insight and empathy to these characters, enough focus on making the writing beautiful but clear that it doesn’t harm. He already has a structure to tie him down anyway

Stuck between poetic realism and hard realism, Greene doesn’t reach the best of these but he’s good enough. If this meant to be an expression of Catholic values, it’s convincing. These values appear in overall existence, in day to day lives. God’s name appears a lot, but we see these values in actions, in people sinning, feeling guilty, trying to forgive or refusing to have sympathy for the sinner. It achieves what the best literature should aim for – an expression that leads to greater understanding of human experience and the weird forces in our lives.

3.5 whiskey bottles out of 5

 

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All That Remains – Madness

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At the same time, this album both signifies All That Remains as a talented rock band who broke away from their genre and copycats who have no future besides spewing typical, Serious Rock cliches. Perhaps the album title is fitting, but that would mean the album is actually interesting. It isn’t.

Since I’m writing about it, let’s try to find something fun to say about this. All That Remains aren’t a bad band. Recently they abandoned Metalcore and just did whatever they wanted, so you got songs like “A War You Cannot Win”, “True-Kvlt-Metal” and “This Probably Won’t End Well”. None of these songs was particulalry original, but they were all fantastic. The band slammed. They sung their melodies with conviction, each part stood on its own while connected to everything else. Melodic parts didn’t exist to contrast the heavy parts, but to co-exist together. The band seemed quite content to be in their place. How else to explain the joy of “True-Kvlt Metal”, which had such victorious spite or “War” where they replace Lostprophets in making victorious rock? This new freedom allowed “End Well” to sound so vulnerable.

They still sound free. Across the first four tracks, there’s a roaring Metalcore track with no melodies and all breakdowns. Then they switch to an ordinary combination of their previous styles, while “If I’m Honest” – one of the few good things here – moves to a cocky Country rock thing. It’s impressive how each song sounds distinct, how the band throw themselves at the ideas and prevent the song from blurring into one another. Each has their obvious place and it’s exactly what I expect from a band this far into their career.

Focusing on song ideas never lets up. Even in their ballads, “Back To You” is intimate, quite and low-key whereas “Far From Home” is huge. Normally I’d say this is the ideal place for every old rock band to be. My description sure say the band is the opposite of washed up, and this is more varied than A War You Cannot Win. Yet it’s far worse, and if that one signaled the band finding their purpose, this sees them losing it.

It’s not the old Rockist case of being too varied. The best songs here – “If I’m Honest” and “The Thunder Rolls” stray the most from the genre. The problem is that the band has no good songs, only good ideas. I’m not sure whether it’s more funny or more sad how hard they try in “Safe House” yet completely miss the point. When the breakdown chorus arrives, it needs something more vulgar, more ridiculous than “Welcome to my safe/Do you feel safe now”. Where’s the swearing? Where’s the explicit bragging? Plus, the screaming is closer to low Death Metal growls than Hardcore Punk shouting. We all know that nothing makes the crowd want to shout along more than growls you can’t understand. Every metalcore band improves once they adopt intelligble screams. The song becomes an exercise in seriousness, a desperate attempt to prove these guys aren’t silly partygoers like Five Finger Death Punch.

It gets worse from there. The title-track is about how politics is pretty bad. You can tell by the music video. Although there’s a decent melody buried there, the chorus is a reptition of its title with zero melody or rhythm or swagger. Again, it’s very serious as if that makes for depth. More hilarious is their attempt at seriousness at all. No one takes this type of music seriously. Its essence is theatrics, being overblown and exaggerating emotions because we can. “Far From Home” misses that because it doesn’t go all the way with textures to capture the beauty of always being close to home. Singing with a serious tone is supposedly enough, but it isn’t.

Worse, there is no purpose in thos experiments. When they made “War” or “Kvlt”, the band sounded like they were really into being cocky and telling everyone to fuck off. Finally they sounded like they found something to be passionate over, something more than merely making music. The only song that captures this sense of purpose is “If I’m Honest” and that’s only because it’s the same “I’m a bad motherfucker” narrative, only with acoustic guitars. Although I appreciate the emotions behind “River City”, the good ideas are a sacrifice for a ‘deep and serious’ image.

Many of the songs have quite a killer sound, but the problem is in the lyrics. A kind of a dissonance appears. You want to mosh and party, but all you can conjure in your hand is the band scowling on stage. Whoever thought of the lyrics for “Trust and Believe” should stop using the English language. The song has a great melody with screaming vocals, but the lyrics are too serious. If your idea of fun is shouting the words “trust and believe” – which are already quite trite in rock music – you need medication. The victorious swagger of past albums is gone.

Only two songs stick out and are worthwhile. “If I’m Honest” has been mentioned already. It’s a mid-tempo acoustic rocker that brings back the cockiness of old records. Another highlight is the closer “The Thunder Rolls”, which is a Garth Brooks cover. Yeah, I didn’t see that either but the band does throw themselves with conviction at their ideas, even if their pointless. So the cover ends up hinting that maybe the band should borrow more from Country. Everyone in the song pushes themselves further – you get atmospheric solos and Phil sounding like he’s drinking his last beer watching Megaton blowing up. Perhaps in a good day “Back To You” will also work, its low-key and warm sound is a refreshment after the over-seriousness of everything else.

The band still sounds capable and they play everything with passion, but there is no point to this music, nothing to unify it besides telling you these guys are serious. In an interview they said they’ll go in a more electronic direction but nothing like that is here. It’s an album of cowardice, of trying new ideas but never taking them to the extreme and keeping the serious facade. “Safe House” needed bass wobbles. “Madness” needed more melody, more texture. Oh well, better luck next time.

15. trust out of 5 believe

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