Theodore Dreiser – An American Tragedy

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“intermingled and furnished it in some nondescript manner which need hardly be described.”

I dare you to find a funnier joke in all of history of the world. Only Robert Jordan’s death can compete with this. Theodore Dreiser overwrites like no other, and he is telling us twice that something is nondescript and there shouldn’t be described. I don’t know whether it’s a moment of self-awareness, or whether it’s definitive proof there was no editor.

You better laugh, because An American Tragedy is a heavy novel. It’s heavy in every sense of the word. The book is long. The writing is dense, overwritten, everything is repeated and reptition is everywhere. The subject matter is the same, the nature of crime and ambition and other big topics about life. The psychology is just as deep, with Dreiser refusing to cast anyone as pure evil.

Dreiser does the impossible here. Authors write great books by sticking to principles of good writing. They each have their own unique spin, but you can draw general rules that these books have in common.

Dreiser breaks every conventional rule. The end of the novel is obvious from the title. The writing is the worst you can find. I can never say enough how Dreiser overwrites. Plenty of things get described and every thought in the characters’ heads is spelled out for us. Dreiser never shows but always tells. The novel is just one psychoanalysis of his characters, but he doesn’t even give us the privilege of letting us do the hard work. He shows both the evidence and the conclusions.

Good thing that Dreiser can back it up. The reason all the overwriting is forgiven is because Dreiser has too much to say. By trying to show the story rather than tell it, he would have lost of the information he wanted to convey.

Is it the easy way out? I don’t know. Showing this story means writing a lot less. By telling everything, Dreiser has to grapple with his ideas head-on. An American Tragedy may be a busy novel, but it has clear themes you can follow. It also has an abundance of them.

It feels so epic, yet the story itself is simple. You could probably tell it in 5 pages. The thing is, what makes literature remarkable is less what happens. The meaning behind it counts far more. That’s why we can tell stories of rise and fall until the heat death of the universe and we don’t get sick of them because they each have different themes.

I doubt many of them can hold a candle to Dreisser’s work. He was blessed with the unique ability of reading minds. That’s the only way to explain the characters. They feel real because they’re each understandable. There’s a murderer, but there’s no villain. By the end, the reverend who constantly begs for mercy isn’t just the character but Dreisser itself.

Weren’t oracles always portrayed as being greatly affected by their visions? This novel shows how understanding the human mind can affect a person. Dreisser doesn’t just overwrite. He wrestles with the tragedy of the human condition. I know this is a huge word and it makes me sound pretentious (and a white straight male). How else to describe this novel, though?

We puny humans are always in conflict. All of us think we’re right. The man who can cure cancer, the soldier who kills a terrorist, Ian Watkins abusing kids, the person who prevents suicides and the suicidal person all sure that their worldview is current. They also all come in conflict. Now, when you only thing your side is right it’s easy. Just keep attacking the other side no matter what. What do you do when you can understand everyone? What do you do when you see both the selfishness of heroics and altruism of it? What do you do when you understand a cruel murderer but can’t ignore the pleas of the victims?

These questions always pop in the novel. American Tragedy is confusing not because of silly things, like ‘it could mean anything’ or because you can’t understand what’s going on. It’s confusing like real life is confusing. There are no shades of grey. It’s one whole kaleidoscope. Dreiser has some answers. Clyde is definitely guilty, but beyond that Dreiser leaves us with questions and keeps us wondering.

While it’s a tragic novel, it’s not a depressing one. A novel that tries hard to understand everyone isn’t a product of a nihilist. It’s a product of someone who loves humanity. Love is a problem like it is a blessing. Like Clyde, Dreiser is trapped between people because of his love for them. Unlike Clyde, Dreiser is trapped between more than just two women and he’s unsure who to choose. Seeing how much compassion he writes this novel with, it only inspires me to be as compassionate to others like Dreiser is to his characters.

Be careful when starting this. The novel takes time to read. The langauge is complex. The paragraphs are long and the plot is very slow. It also took me about 90 pages before I got used to the writing style. It might be inaccessible, but it’s well worth the effort. The novel wouldn’t work if it wasn’t so clogged with Dreiser’s own thoughts on his characters. That’s how he reveals to us all the grey areas in the novel.

As inaccessible and hard to read as it is, I’d recommend to everyone. If literature is about enriching our understanding of ourselves, then this is definitive literature. It loses a few points for dragging, but as difficult as it is I know I will return to it someday.

5 murders out of 5

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

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Game of Thrones is crap. There are very few positive things you can say about it. Martin’s prose is clunky and the story goes nowhere. Any little character development that he had gets lost. There is something engrossing in a huge drama of constant betrayals, violence, sex and powerful people. The powerful and famous people always lead a wild life. Why settle for Martin’s crap when I, Claudius exists?

Everything that Martin’s book is supposed to do, Graves does a whole lot better. Comparing something to crap isn’t much of a praise, but I, Claudius doesn’t just highlight these faults. It’s a powerful novel that succeeds on all fronts – prose, characters, events.

Graves creates a strange mixture of familiarity and distance. We often think of ancient languages as hard to read, but Graves’ prose is plain. The sentences are sometimes long, but never go poetic. Nothing in the prose resembles the epic poems of Rome or ancient Greece. It’s closer to Paul Auster’s maze of thoughts.

This style traps us inside Claudius’ head and brings him to life. It also highlights the similarities between our world and ancient Rome. We’re all logged on, hearing what party this powerful family threw or who’s this actor is dating. It happens everywhere. Being popular in high school, which is a small environment makes everyone a viewer to your life.

It’s not enough to just present a series of dramatic events. You need a perspective that will bring meaning to those. That’s why the decision to have Claudius narrate the novel is brilliant. He’s actually not present throughout most of the novel. It’s an impersonal story about other people doing things he didn’t witness. Claudius’ perspective is everywhere though, even when the ‘I’ of first person doesn’t appear for 20 pages.

Claudius was an outcast. Like any outcast, he has no choice but to question the foundation, beliefs and ways out life of the society that cast him out. It doesn’t mean he’s some social justice warrior who fights for the Common Folks against the evil tyranny. He’s not one of them, either. He’s almost completely alone in his intellectual pursuits. All he can do is look with detached eyes at the mess that is the royal family.

George Martin expected us to care about the bullshit of the Iron Throne. People lead great lives, had servants, an endless supply of lovers and food and still felt bad. Despite all they had, not having the crown was unbearable to them. Martin wanted us to take this seriously, although a common person – not even a poor one – would be happy with a quarter of what the a royal member had.

Graves is willing to laugh at this. Using Claudius, he presents the ridiculousness of it all. These are people who are offended by the slightest things. They are so thirsty for power, yet it’s this thirst for power that causes them all to be afraid of each other. The Senators offer to grant people honours, only so people will suspect them and then kill them. There is one instance where someone put the coat on the wrong peg which lead to the coat falling and then someone stepping on it. This caused an animosity that later ended up in one bloody murder or another.

No one dares to question the purpose of it all. No one takes a moment to look at what he has and try to make the best of it. Claudius, born disadvantaged, is merely happy to have access to intellectuals and time to write history. He’s one of the few who finds something else to do besides being a popular and well-known figure. He’s the nerd who was busy working on his skills instead of trying to be popular.

That doesn’t make him a saint, though. He might be an outcast, but he’s closer to the royals than to the common people. He doesn’t detest the commoners but he’s not exactly on their side. In a way, he falls to the same trap as the royal family. His whole world still revolves around struggles for the throne.

Aside from a few small digressions, the story concerns itself only with how the Big People lived. The ordinary people get a few names, but their stories aren’t told. He sometimes talks about how the Emperor generally treated him, what he did for their benefit or took them. Claudius never comes down to the streets to document how they lived.

For all of his claims of being an objective historian, he can’t help but get sucked into the silly wars of the royal families. Then again, how can we blame him? Why should Claudius step down? He found himself a comfortable position enough – hiding from the fighting in his libraries and villa. He learned a little more empathy due to his casting-out, but outcasts still care about themselves most of all.

He has one dramatic and hilarious story to tell. The story of this dynasty is truly unpredictable. It has nothing to do with random deaths. It has to do with the fact that this culture, while being similar to us is very different. There are all kinds of bizarre moments, like Caligula’s bridge of ships and how a pear tree was charged with murder.

There are no such bizarre moments in Martin, because he never created a different culture than ours. All he did was create a gloomy world of decent people and overly cruel ones. In Martin, the cruel people want power because it gets the plot moving. Here, people want power because it’s part of their character.

Both Tiberius and Caligula are presented as cruel, but these are different kinds. Tiberius and paranoid and afraid. He destroys everyone who he thinks might be out to get him. He acts out of a lack of self-confidence. Caligula is the opposite. He’s so sure of himself that he thinks he can do whatever he likes. He enjoys his power so much he does think for the sake of adrenaline and instant gratification. Dropping people from the audience to the arena and building a bridge of ships is part of the same character.

This humanization makes for a much more grey area. A lot of people suffer because of them, yet we’re not invited to hate them. We’re invited to understand why they act so. Claudius narrates in a dry tone that does more to add an air of objectivity. When an emperor does something right, it’s not hidden from us. Even when they’re cruel we understand that from Caligula’s point of view this is the right thing to do.

Grey morality is not when nobody is right, but when you can understand a cruel person even when we disagree with him. These are just a bunch of people running around, doing what they think is the best for themselves.

The humanization makes the violence all the more shocking. Sejanus is a horrible person. We’re never given a reason to like him, but he’s just another power-hungry guy like everyone else. His death is shocking because it’s clearly the death of a person. There is something meta in how the Romans cheer for his death. They cheer for the death of an antagonist like Martin fans cheer for the death of their most hated character. Violence isn’t shocking when the people who suffer are just plot devices. When they’re characters with wants and needs, when they feel real it’s scary.

The only weakness is in the narration style. It’s told in a summary fashion. It allows Graves to sum up a lot of events in a few pages, but it also creates a distance that is too wide. It’s not a problem with the emperors. They’re all well-developed and unique, but many others are just names that do a few things and then die. At least there is a meaningful reason for this. The emperors were the dominating characters. The characters who get the most developed are the most powerful ones. It’s not a case where characters get different levels of importance without a reason.

It’s been a while since I read such a brilliant novel. It gets so many things right. The characters are well-developed and memorable. There are hilarious moments and equally horrifying ones. The story is thrilling. It hints that big things are coming while making sure What Happens Now is also entertaining. It deserves its place in the canon.

5 murderous pear trees out of 5

Isaac Asimov – Second Foundation

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There are two sayings about reading literature that I hear often. The first is that the person just can’t get into the book. The second is that I should wait 1000 pages until the character killed in the epilogue for A Storm of Swords for a cheap twist, is connected to the larger picture. True, these statements aren’t said by the same people, but even the people of the second group don’t display an interest in reading. You’d think that if reading is such a task, people would prefer more minimalistic works.

The general public has better things to do than search the net for new books to read. The Sci-Fi/Fantasy community is more disappointing. We’re all familiar with Asimov, so how come nobody asked why the hell people are preferring a longer, less focused, less meaningful version of Foundation?

Asimov’s focus has tigthened, and in this novel he abandons the short-story format of the previous novels. These are still two seperate stories, only with a much stronger connection between them. Unlike a lot of trilogies, Asimov’s books don’t get worse as they go on. Rather, he has a better idea of what inspired his first book in the first place and he discards what’s useless.

Asimov, despite being famous for being a hard sci-fi writer and a scientist, doesn’t resemble any of the ‘scientific’ people I encountered. Go to your typical science class, and people will worship physics while being sure that psychology is for the rubble. Since it can’t be represented in pure mathematics, it’s therefore meaningless.

Asimov gets around that by saying ‘psychohistory’ also has hardcore mathematics and equation, but no one in the novel can really comperehend this subject. That doesn’t make it less important. Understanding people is, above all, the most important thing. Whether you want power or to advance society, human society is first of all made of people.

Without people, the physical sciences can’t exist. If people are the basis of all science, they are therefore should be a top priority for research. In a genre that’s more about science than people, it’s a bold statement. Never mind that Asimov can’t (and doesn’t try) to create characters. He must have had bad social skills. His conclusion has more in common with literary fiction than a lot of popular sci-fi.

While his characterization remains weak, they got to be a little more human last time and here the Mule is improved upon. He’s still simple, but the climax gives him a moment of humanity that Asimov didn’t seem capable of. Asimov tried to make him sympathetic in the previous novel – that’s another plus for the author by the way, how his work doesn’t actually have ‘heroes and villains’ – but here it feels real.

In Foundation and Empire, the Mule was a generic weakling who decides to take revenge on the world. On Second Foundation, his journey reveals itself to be something like Manson’s Antichrist Superstar. Like the Worm, he achieves all that power but is not sure what to do next. He may have defeated the external enemy, but he didn’t do anything about himself. The Mule got into a habit of conquering and defeating that he couldn’t stop, even if his next enemy is possibly not even real.

If Asimov combined the two novellas concerning the Mule into a single one, it’d probably be worthy of considered a classic. It’s this moment of humanity that’s so rare from epic fiction nowadays. Even if the Mule remains simplistic, he’s a well-made, sympathetic antagonist who’s not here for us to hate or root for his defeat, but to understand his mistakes.

The rest of the novel brings Asimov back to his pulp style, and it remains surprisingly in control. This is where Asimov destroys everything that was ever good in Game of Thrones. Like Martin, his plot is dense, in large scale and features plenty of twists and riddles. Asimov’s minimalism means you’re never drowning in details don’t help to move the story forward.

Asimov wants you to solve his puzzle, but you can’t solve the puzzle if you’re given 100 extra pieces that got nothing to do with anything. There’s a reason puzzle games, even plot-driven ones tend to be minimalistic. No matter how many riddles and twists Asimov pulls, they’re always in focus. They’re never drowned out by long descriptions of rooms or of what the character thinking. There are a few embarassing moments of techno-babble, but they’re read more like Asimov was sure he was going to invent the thing. There is charm in that excitement

It does get a bit silly in the end, where everyone suddenly assumes he thinks he knows he assumes he thinks he knows what the other person thinks he assumes he knows what the fifth person is eating. The climax, while fun, is ridiculous and borders on self-parody. It’s a series of amusing twists, but they’re more confusing than clear. Confusion isn’t Asimov’s purpose. He keeps you at the dark at first, but then makes everything crystal clear. It’s a minor slip, though. It doesn’t completely undermine the coherency that makes these books so fun. Asimov just let the pen get away from him a little.

This is the best of the first of the original trilogy. It may not provide a big, final conclusion but it’s not needed. It sees Asimov getting better at both his strength, and he gets over some of his weaknesses. It’s still not a classic, but as far as simple, fun adventures go it sets the standards. Asimov wrote an adventure that’s smart, fun and occasionally has something to say. If he’s so popular, how come nobody replicates it?

3 mules out of 5