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

Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

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How do short stories work? How does any story work? Stories are a series of events connected by a theme, time and circumstances. They lead into one another and eventually conclude. Every ending is a beginning, of course. The end of a relationship is the beginning of a life as a single. Still, we live with these beginnings and endings – we draw lines between childhood and adulthood, day and night and Mondays and Sundays.

If you want to aim for realism, you need to remember this bias when writing stories. Beginnings and endings are what give stories meaning and we tell a story because it means something. It can be funny, it can show something about love but you never tell a story just to tell a story. Carver’s stories have some kind of a beginning, but no real endings. Sometimes they end with a punch, sometimes with the implication something terrible is about to happen. Concrete endings are rare, yet these stories still work.

Is this poetry, or is this literature? What’s the boundry between them?

Carver’s stories work because he puts the purpose way ahead of structure. His purpose isn’t clear-cut, which makes it all the more impressive when his stories work. There is no specific situation Carver wants to explore, no guideline that connects the stories. A lot of drinking happens and love is a big deal, but that’s because love is a big deal in general.

He tries to tap into life’s energy. If this sounds overly-sentimental, it’s because it’s hard to talk about the stories in any other way. How he achieves such emotional resonance is still unclear. Characters might as well not exist and stories rarely end or begin. It must be because of the unique structure of the book.

Few stories here stand on their own. Even the best one requires prior experience with his style before enjoying them. In fact, even as an experienced reader in minimalism and in Carver (I actually read this a long time ago in its original version – Beginners) it took me time to get into it. The style is so minimalist, so sparse that it’s shocking at first. We’re used to maximalist literature. Every beginner writer who gave me their stories to review has overflowing language.

We look for the grandness. We look for the symbol or the sentence that repeats itself, or characers talking about who they are. Carver creates Everymen by letting the situation speak for itself. In one story, everyone lives in Alburquerque but are all from somewhere else. In another, a man puts his whole house – couch and TV and kitchen – outside. In another, a couple fights violently over a baby.

Each of these small tidbits are rife to analyze. Just by telling you what happens I imitated a whole story, and do we really need more of it? A couple fighting violently over a baby is a great illustration of a fallen relationship. The baby is a product of both parents, yet the two parties want it for themselves. The baby couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the other. Relationships need room for selflessness, for caring about the other. One of the last line feels like Carver summing up every fallen relationship:

“He felt the baby slipping out of his ands and he pulled back very hard.”

Is this how we should react when love comes down? Should we pull back towards ourselves stronger and stronger at something that can only exists thanks to co-operation?

Self-insert characters are often criticized as lazy. That’s true, but there is a time and place for them. Sometimes the situation is the main character. The objects moving carry the meaning, not the personality. It’s true this has been used for escapsim – Harem anime create a situation many guys would like to escape to. Carver doesn’t create comfortable situations.

His situations are soaked in pain, but more than anything confusion. It’s as if by expressing the events in the most blunt way possible, he hopes he could make sense of the human condition. As evidenced by the last two stories (who gain a lot of their power by their position), Carver didn’t even come close to a solution.

These stories are a journey through a land that’s not really barren. People exaggerate when they describe Carver’s stories as ‘people drinking and talking’. He’s more concerned with the absurdity of life. That’s why a lot of these stories involve weird situations that feel odd in this collection. When was the last time a person with no hands asked to photograph your house? Life is strange – any attempt to capture realism by removing odd events results in bland monotony. Since strange events are confusing, many authors write about them with colorful language and your dull feel-good ending. “Viewfinder”, in different hands, would’ve been distorted into how ‘it all depends on your perspective! snap out of your depression!’. In Carver’s hands, he lets the interaction stand on their own. The loneliness is obviously there, and that makes their connection all the more engrossing and life-affirming.

‘Empathy’ is another word that suits Carver’s style. His style is so warm, so intimate. You can pop this book in the middle and it wouldn’t feel any different than starting from the beginning. The stories like a collection of aimless anecdotes friends tell each other into the night, just to have something to talk to. Like your friends’ anecdotes, the stories ramble and swerve into unnecessary territories before snapping back to the main topic. This isn’t sloppy writing but a deliberate attempt to capture the warmth of sharing stories.

Although Carver has been hailed as a master of minimalism, it didn’t actually come from him. Gordon Lish, the editor. The original manuscript wasn’t as minimalistic, although Lish clearly saw the potential there. The attraction to these stories is in the how intimate they feel. Even when Carver starts writing in bigger paragraphs, this would remain the defining feature of his work.

It’s as sparse as a Joy Division record, but don’t read Carver for the minimalist macho bullshit. This isn’t about covering up an iceberg like Hemingway. He does the opposite. By writing about the stories just as they are, he mines them for every sip of emotion there is. A lot of great authors gave us insight into the human mind/condition/experience, but none feel so intimate as Carver.

4 talking about love out of 5

Saul Bellow – Seize the Day

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It’s amazing how much you can say in so few words. It’s not even a case of huge paragraphs and a small font. You can read Seize the Day in a few hours, but it covers more topics and points of view than a regular novel. It also feels epic, even though all that happens is that a person talks to his father, checks the market and notices a funeral.

Bellow uses the same starting point as Herzog. His main character is a person who hit rock bottom and is worried that there is a hole there. It’s about being stuck in a terrible situation and being anxious about how worse it can get. The situation is more realistic and troubling this time. It’s no longer the case of a wealthy man who has time to get into trouble. Wilhelm can’t afford it.

It’s an examination of the money-hungry world and its two sides. People who love money make for useful shallow villains that create plot, but here they take a different role. Bellow looks what the ideas beneath just loving money.

We get the two common promises of wealth. Dr. Adler represents wealth via hard work and skills. Despite what your parents say, a degree in medicine isn’t enough to get cash flowing. Dr. Tamkin is the other side, the promise of quick money without a lot of work. Just buy some commodities, sell them later and hope that the changes in the market will be in your favour.

Why do we want all that money anyway? Wilhelm is like many of the middle class who were born into enough wealth. They don’t know the instinct for survival since they never faced the threat of hunger. The main thing they end up searching for is love, fame, quick money that will keep their idle lifestyle and ‘seizing the day’.

There is truth to both sides. Wilhelm fails because he doesn’t take the good parts of the two but the bad. He has the love of money and the reckless attitude, but he doesn’t have the ability to work or to enjoy the present for what he is. His hotel has a pool and a massage parlor, but he doesn’t use them. He thinks he can seize the day and get money from it, but it doesn’t work. You get money so it’ll be easier to seize the day.

Dr. Adler worked hard to gain his position. Being a doctor is agonizing work and after all the time you spend with patients, you will grow to be more dismissive of people who work less hard. This dismissive nature can also spin out of control.

Wilhelm might be lazy and misguided, but Adler is so sure of his ways that he thinks beating him over the head with it will solve his problem. He doesn’t see any other solution besides working hard. It’s a miracle cure for him. Welhelm doesn’t actually want his father to take care of all his funds. He just wants a little affection.

In Tamkin’s world, success is measured not only by how much money you have but how quickly you can get it. It’s all about taking risks, living in the now and so on. The flaw in this, is that what they actually do is not to enjoy the present. They gamble so they could enjoy the money in the future. Buying and selling commodities, at least for Wilhelm, isn’t enjoyable in and of itself.

Even his wife doesn’t have the little bit of kindness to divorce him. She wants money and nothing else. She expects to get it while she’ll simply ‘raise her kids’ despite the fact they can handle a little on their own. Wherever Wilhelm turns, it’s all about money.

Saul Bellow doesn’t write off money completely. You can’t expect to live off society’s kindness. Bellow’s critique against the mindset is that it’s so caught up in so-called ‘survival’, money is so important that they can’t see anything else. Human civilization wasn’t built only by people who could hunt.

His attack in how this society doesn’t give people a chance. Wilhelm isn’t chained to his past mistakes just psychologically. The fallout from his marriage is still after him. He does try to shake it off, but Bellow doesn’t show us whether it worked out or not. Like anything else, putting away our mistakes and moving on is a gamble.

The problem rests not just with the money-hungry society but Wilhelm himself – he’s tied to some his mistakes psychologically, he goes after scam artists although no one points a gun to his head. It’s hard to know where we draw line. If Bellow attempted to do it, he could quickly degenerate into caricatures. What makes this book so convincing and so realistic is that everyone is criticized and understood. We’re not told whether Adler or Tamkin or Margaret are evil assholes who oppress poor Wilhelm. We’re merely shown their sides of things.

You can’t come up with an easy to this conflict and Bellow doesn’t even try to. The only message in the ending seems a cliched one – appreciate your life because someday you will die – but it’s an insightful way of saying it. Some of our problems are our fault and some are our environment’s, but we have to ‘seize the day’ and still enjoy it.

Bellow’s writing is far more focused here. It’s the rambling style again, but it doesn’t feel like a collection of excerpts from essays. There are inner monologues which still feel awkward – Bellow should’ve just wrote this in first-person – but this time they’re tied more strongly to the themes and ideas. They are either Wilhelm’s various thoughts about the characters and how he perceives them, or they are about the Money Society and other such concepts. There’s more of the former, thankfully. The latter still feels like leftovers from an essay collection.

There’s a blurb on the cover that describes Bellow’s writing as ‘energetic’. That’s a very good descriptor. The novella has a brisk pace to it. It reads like an epic story condensed. Compared to other novellas I’ve read, it doesn’t have the contemplative atmosphere. It’s hard for me to describe how Bellow achieves this (Tamkin’s dialogues are the best examples. He rants endlessly like a salesman) but it fits. Everything is urgent on this novel.

He also avoids the main problem of any realist authors. His characters feel real because of the traits he gives them. He achieves his realism by giving him distinct descriptions, worldviews and dialogue. Even Rubin, who appears briefly in the beginning feels more developed than those in Hemingway’s novels. He always wears pretty clothes although he’s behind the counter and no one sees him. Bellow could’ve skipped telling us what this means, because it’s a unique enough detail that can tell us all kinds of things about who this person is.

It’s a tight, foucsed novella with a purpose that I think I haven’t found yet. I came up with some things but I’m sure it’s not enough. Bellow is a man of big ideas and strong writing, and here his ideas are more apparent. It’s not buried under essays, unlike Herzog. Its short length will also make it friendly for re-reading. The occasional rambling style is a problem, and this can’t escape the “this is very literary, so pay attention” trap. This trap can confuse the reader more than help transmit the ideas. Still, I hope to return to this someday and find more.

3.5 stock market crashes out of 5

John O’Hara – Appointment in Samarra

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In my To Kill a Mockingbird review, I talked about how classics, even when they fail, leave a lot to talk about. I was certain Mockingbird will be the classic that will offer the least interesting thing to say. How wrong I was. Along comes Appointment in Samarra, which doesn’t do anything beyond telling a decent, downward spiral type of story.

Downward Spiral Stories are great. They offer a chance for us to confront our flaws and the worst case scenarios. It’s one story type that should never be extinct. It’s also a story type that relies solely on the character. You can’t have an effective downward spiral if the character isn’t putting himself there. If it’s something from the outside that leads him down, then that’s just the author being mean.

Julian English’s downward spiral is well-written and is character-driven. Julian enters the spiral out of his own volition, and he keeps going downward because of his own flaws. When he reaches the bottom, he’s still offered a choice whether to hit it or stay afloat. O’Hara understands the structure, but he forgot to add themes to this story.

Compare it to the narrative found in Nine Ninch Nails’ album. In Reznor’s musical masterpiece, the character hits the bottom because of very specific traits. As shown in songs like “I Do Not Want This”, “Closer” and “Ruiner”, it’s an obsession with power, among other things that leads to the bottom. It may weird to compare a book to a music album, but even if The Downward Spiral doesn’t speak of events, it speaks of themes. The songs deal with the flaws that cause a man to enter a downward spiral. What were Julian’s flaws that made him go down there?

That’s an issue that hovers all over the book and prevents it from having an emotional impact. Perhaps O’Hara critiques the lifestyle of rich people who live in country clubs, but there aren’t enough moments to illustrate what’s wrong with it. He just shows people who don’t seem like very pleasant company, but if your charactes are plesant company you may be doing something wrong anyway. O’Hara fails to show something specific that is wrong with this society.

It’s an idea Ellis also explored, but Ellis used prose and events to create an atmosphere that made his whole society seem really awful. There is a moment, near the end of the book, where O’Hara says something about this lifestyle. By the time it comes, though, it’s too late. Julian is already too far down. You can’t add an event at the last moment to give the spiral meaning. The spiral gets its meaning by what causes the character to enter in the first place.

Since o’Hara only remembers to deal with his themes at the end – although the way he wraps them is satisfying enough – all the rest of the pages are just a fun, well-written story. O’Hara’s biggest strength is his prose. He writes in the same style pop fiction writers do. There are a lot of sentences without verbs, and he occasionally rambles on about a character’s background. He makes it work, though. That’s the only special thing about Appointment in Samarra. He takes an awful style of writing and makes it work. Nowhere have I felt the need to stop reading because the prose is too clumsy. Even when I was wondering what’s the point of the current details, they were well-written enough that they didn’t slow down the pace.

Good prose makes for a good story, but it wasn’t enough for a classic novel. It’s a fun downward spiral story that manages to have all events come from the characters. It fails to confront any of its themes until the end though, so it’s really just a pretty nice story. I neve thought that ‘just a pretty nice story’ could end up in Classics list.

3 bottles of whiskey out of 5