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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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

Margaret Atwood – Wilderness Tips

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At its worst, Wilderness Tips suffers from Atwood’s most common flaw. Although she’s blessed with intelligence that never gets in the way of her stories, there is always a little too much distance between the reader and the characters. That’s an odd complaint, considering the book’s genre. Compare it to Raymond Carver, and Atwood has better characters yet doesn’t create as much sympathy.

It’s odd. It should be the opposite. The close look at people in all their glorious flaws should make us feel closer to them. Atwood isn’t shy of the first person narrative. Yet it’s the same case with every Atwood book – its emotional impact is always a little low compared to the intellectual side of things. Then again, there are some brilliant stories here and it’s a prime example of how realist fiction should be done. So Atwood couldn’t get around her tiny flaw here, but it doesn’t matter when everything else is so brilliant.

Short story collections can be hard to review. They’re not music albums. They’re often written over a long span of times. They tend to contain experiments and snippets. For many authors, short story collections are B-Sides & Rarities – odd pieces of prose that are interesting for the die-hard fan, but don’t go anywhere and don’t really ‘conclude’.

The latter part is important. Even if you’re a great short story writer, why are all of these stories packed together? In music albums, you often have an overarching sound connecting it all. Great albums also have good sequencing, with songs sounding better in their place in the tracklist. Wilderness Tips isn’t so good that it starts with a bangs and concludes, but it’s a masterwork of a genre. That alone is enough to make it feel like a complete work, instead of just assorted prose for the diehards.

‘Realism’ is an annoying word to use when discussing fiction. It’s also necessary, which makes it more annoying. No one actually has any access to what reality is. It’s the Map and Territory situation. You perceive parts of reality, but never all of it. So how can humans write something ‘realistic’ when they only perceive a very tiny part of reality? Keep in mind that fiction deals with the most unstable aspect with reality – humans, their relationship and how they experience the world.

Some opt for a dry, ‘nothing ever happens’ style to inform the reader it’s realistic. That’s basically a cop-out for people who aren’t imaginative enough or too insecure. The ideal technique for realistic fiction is to steal stories directly from reality itself, and always be aware every story has as many sides as it has characters. I don’t know how many of these stories are based on true cases, but Atwood’s portrayal of relationships has always been brilliant. Here, she’s in top form.

I wish I had Atwood to help with me with relationships. She never slides into strawmen or caricatures. Her men and women aren’t heroes and villains, but flawed people. Sometimes their flaws make them easy to manipulate or abuse. Sometimes their flaws lead them to abuse or be terrible to others. With great understanding comes great pessimism, though. All over these stories is disenchantment and cynicism towards the idea of romance and sexuality.

It’s not so much that Atwood is a rowdy feminist out to castrate men. Women can a lot of flak too. Many of them are attracted to married men and work on starting an affair. The crucial thing Atwood focuses on is that every relationship has two participants. It’s never one person doing things to the other. Affairs aren’t just sluts seducing innocent men, or men being pigs. Both sides choose to do it.

Some relationships are abusive, though. Some people are assholes and only them are to blame for what they do to others. In these stories we see what pessimism is truly like. The assholes are never evil caricatures, rapists in the dark or hot young gaslighters. It’s easy to understand why they do it and that includes the backstabber in “Uncles”. What’s more horrifying than the act itself is their humanity. Atwood knows evil people don’t come from outerspace, kill people for the fuck of it and get blasted by dudes with sixpacks. What drove them to that behavior can also drive her or me or you or anyone of us.

The best story here is perhaps the aforementioned “Uncles”. While Atwood’s feminism and exploration of women’s position in society isn’t huge here – women are the main characters mainly because Atwood is a woman – that story explores it brilliantly. Again, it’s about showing the two sides of things. This time it’s about the relationship with a beautiful, perfect person who’s used to approval. I’ve met those. Women who are pretty can have it very easy in life, especially if they develop a few skills. Their good looks already means people are nicer to them.

People are jealous of you when you’re successful. The jealousy is even harsher when your luck is obvious. Everyone is successful mostly because of luck, but the Beautiful People’s type of luck is so obvious it’s excruciating. We also all know that our love for the Beautiful People is what gives them their success. We’re to blame. One way to deal with jealousy is to demonize the successful, disregard their successes or assume their feelings aren’t worthwhile. They’re so successful, so who cares if we humiliate them? It mirrors things I’ve seen in real life.

There’s also enough variety in tone and prose style to prevent this from becoming variations on a style. The hard realism and theme of relationships allow Atwood to experiment with story structures and styles without causing any disconnection between the stories. It’s the most versatile I’ve seen Atwood yet. Some stories have a more poetic, somber tone to them. Others like “Hairball” have jumpy prose that’s unlike anything she’s written. Sometimes she apes Carver completely with hard, dry prose. The tone is always appropriate for the stories, too. This variety helps to reinforce the realism. People experience reality differently. If all your stories are written in the same way, you’re too narrow for reality.

Wilderness Tips is an excellent short story collection. The only flaw is the slightly disappointing closer (“Hack Wednesday”) and the distance Atwood can’t rid of. Still, at its best this is how realist fiction should be. The events are exciting. There’s always a feeling of uneasiness and unstability which define reality. People are flawed human beings, sometimes weak or evil or talented but they’re always human. The stories also conclude more than they just end hanging in the middle of things. No one writes prose like Carver, but this is where I’ll direct people if they want to understand realist fiction.

3.5 tips out of 5

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