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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Underworld – Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future

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It’s amazing Underworld are still capable of making an album this good. Dance music has passed them by. They’re now remembered more by beard-stroking critics than dancers. “Pearl’s Girl” is a banger but it will just confuse the people over at Ibiza. They have existed for, what, 35 years? Just so you’ll have a clear picture, Hyde was born in 1975. He spent most of his life in Underworld

Dance music is now completely different. Underworld specialized in artistic and long-winded dance music. It’s not about bass drops or catchy hooks, but atmosphere and grooves that lock the listener. There’s a culture shock effect when you listen to their old material. In a way, nobody actually wanted this record. The same audience that danced their lives to “Cowgirl” are now too old for clubs and weirded out by Skrillex. Does anyone still hear “Cowgirl” at clubs?

Underworld should be tired by now after 35 years and losing relevancy. Listening to Barbara, and all of this vanishes. Yes, they sound out of touch. Yes, they sound old. They sound like this in the best way possible. There’s no drugged audience to cater to or fans who aren’t sure if they want a copy of their most recent hits. Dance music passed them by so they can do whatever the hell they want.

The album is a logical progression for Underworld. It feels like all this time they were meant to get here. Underworld’s vision of dance music has always been highly artistic. It was dancefloor friendly, but also disconnected from dancing. Weird ideas overpowered grooves. Songs go on for a while, slowly morph until you’re engulfed by them. Nothing has actually changed in this album.

The album sounds most like a re-visiting of Dubnobass from a grown perspective. Barbara has those same techniques, only this time it’s softer, calmer and more satisfied with itself. Underworld don’t sound like they’re pushing forward because they don’t need to. “Juanita” was a desperate attempt at proving everyone how Underworld was the best 90’s dance act. “I Exhale” opens with stomping drums that aren’t aggressive. Underworld are fine dancing on their own.

From there on the album grows more reflective. It gets better until it finishes with the godsmacking of “Nylon Strung”. It’s a house classic and easily one of the best songs of the year. At first, it’s just a blissful house track. Then halfway through it you realize it’s pure bliss. The best thing about it is how effortless it sounds. Underworld are now experts. They know the genre inside out and how to make it work.

The sequencing also raises the album quality. Albums like this make you realize how important sequencing is. Every track sounds better in context. “I Exhale” is the loud, long opener that needs to grab attention and set the stage. It’s also the most different track here, and it needs to be done away with first. “Low Burn” and “If Rah” are typical Underworld track – developing slowly, and having both a strong atmosphere and groove. The ambient middle sets the mood for the last two, which pull the whole ‘Blissful House’ thing. “Nylon Strung” can only be a closer – a song so happy that celebrates its own album.

A lot of bands lose relevancy as they age. It shouldn’t be this way. When you work, the harder and the more you practice the better you get. Yet in music artists often drop their classic in their first years and vanish. Something about art makes people run out of drive, or ideas, or passion. Old age in artists is generally a bad sign.

An album like Barbara is the ideal album by elder statesman of a genre. Underworld are going whereever they feel like it. They’re disconnected from modern Dance music, so they just explore their euphoric side with “Nylon Strung” and their Ambient Pop in “Motorhome”. Nowhere in the album do they sound tired (Okay, perhaps on “I Exhale” for a bit). They don’t have to push themselves and make a “Juanita” anymore. After establishing a unique personality, all you got to do is mine it.

The album title is appropriate. Underworld do sound like they face a shining future. This won’t gain any critical attention since, in the end, the music sounds too old for this. Albums that generate buzz are contemporary. That’s a shame, because it’s not an insiders-only album. You don’t need any experience with music to enjoy something as beautiful as “Nylon Strung”. Hopefully there’s more where that came from.

3.5 nylons out of 5

Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping

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There was a time I labeled myself a non-conformist. It was a short time, or at least I want to believe so. Like your typical socially inept nerd, I could not fit the norms and weren’t interested in them. There was supposed to be some vague ‘alternative’ or ‘underground’, but the impression I got is that it was just another herd. Whether you’re following a small or a big herd, you’re still following a herd.

Then the whole idea of ‘following a herd’ started to not seem so bad. It turned out that the popular kids got a few things right, and that trying to fit in has its benefits. I ‘found myself’ not by discarding everything else – I didn’t define myself by lack – but by taking pieces of this and of that, whatever fit. Being different on purpose is just limiting yourself. When I no longer cared about being different or fitting in, things became so much easier. I also became weirder and harder to digest, if my friends’ comments are anything to go by.

You rarely find this narrative in art. Our parents, schools and sport guys tell us to conform. Weirdos are bad because they’re weird, and being weird is bad because it’s weird. It may have something to do with weirdness meaning automatic sexual unattractiveness, or that it leads to ‘failure’. Music, books and movies tell us to stand up. The mainstream is stupid. We should put a fist up, do the opposite of what they tel us and buy Rage Against the Machine records. Art’s narrative gives you an enemy to rebel against, and everything that’s associated with it is immidiately bad. How many embarassing political songs there are about ‘America’, where if you put the word ‘you’ instead of ‘America’ you get a generic break-up song?

Housekeeping offers a truly different (oh!) narrative. Its narrative touches a lot of things, and some of them will surface only after re-reading. Like other capital L Literature, like The Assistant, it’s a book that’s very profound when it shows life and incoherent when it attempts a philosophical essay. It does more the former than the latter. Robinson’s language is as beautiful as everyone says it is, but the style is different.

Housekeeping is called ‘descriptive’ when, in fact, it’s very minimalist. It doesn’t take long before Carver name pops in the mind. It was released around the same era. Robinson reaches the same intimacy Carver’s writing has but in the different way. Carver’s writing is rough and hard. It just stands there, hoping the emotions will surface on their own. Robinson reaches out for them, tries to make it clear.

It’s funny to describe the novel this way when the protagonist is so inactive, but what can you expect from it? This is how novels about grief and tragedy should be written. What’s interesting about death is less that it happens, but how people cope with it. Tragedy is only as meaningful as the characters’ reaction and means of coping with it. Paul Auster made a whole career out of it.

Ruth’s behavior is reminiscent of Holden Caulfied. Both of them spent too much time in their youth with death, and you get this PTSD-like behavior. Ruth is passive not just because Robinson’s characrization is a bit underwhelming, but because she can’t think of anything else other than death. Death is everywhere. She lives in a house where she last saw her mother, who comitted suicide in the lake where their grandfather died.

There is no escaping death, or forgetting it a little. They’re isolated from the town. The lake is always there and the train is always audible. They are a reminder of lost family members. Just like how Caulfield kept thinking about his dead brother, Ruth can’t help not think about her dead family members. She finds no way of coping with it.

Lucille is the alternative. Lucille is in the same spot as Ruth, but she wants to move on. ‘Escape’ isn’t the right word. After a certain point, there is little more you can learn from death, other than that it gets you eventually. Lucille doesn’t ‘conform’ because she’s bad, or because she’s not unique enough or anything so silly. Her ‘conforming’ is a way of moving on. She conforms out of her own will, because eventually there is nothing to learn about that lake, other than that people died there.

This is where Housekeeping‘s story of nonconformity takes a unique route. Our conformist ‘conforms’ out of her own will, and it does her good. The problem is not that there is a ‘norm’, but that it’s enforced. Ruth’s and Sylvie’s situation worsen when society opens its eye on them, and tries to ‘set them’ on the right path.

There is no attempt to understand them, why Sylvie is such an eccentric and Ruth is so passive. They try to use brute force, as the problem is that Ruth doesn’t go to school and not something deeper. It reminds me of what Marilyn Manson said about the Columbine kids: “I wouldn’t say anything to them. I’d hear what they have to say”. All this brute force did, in fact, push them in the opposite direction. It doesn’t matter what kind of norm society stands for – there is mention about a strict religious attitude, but it’s not developed. All that matters is that it thinks forcing the ‘weirdos’ to conform will somehow make everything better.

Robinson expresses these ideas by showing the behavior of the characters, and she does it welll. So why are the philosophical ramblings? In a novel that’s all about letting you figure out its meaning, what spelling out will do? It’s funny to see such talented authors resort to this trope. Talented people are indeed unaware of their talents. To Robinson’s credit, she has a knack for crafting a beautiful sentence even if its meaning is opaque. She’s closer to McEwan than Malamud. Her sentence have a nice, easy to read rhythm. It’s a langauge beautiful enough to be enjoyable without being meaningful, but the novel is too good for this.

Robinson also can’t get over realism’s biggest obstacle. In an attempt to make ‘realistic’ characters, they make their characters dull. They don’t include enough odd details that inform us who these people are. Sylvie and the aunts get some development, but their quirkiness is contrasted with Lucille and Ruth. Lucille and Ruth feel almost empty. The writing and pacing feels real enough, so instead of coming unrealistic or undeveloped, it just reads like Robinson held a lot of information back. What the novel needed was a few moments that will show us how these sisters are like when there are together.

For a novel about two sisters who lived their whole youth together, there are barely any moments to show it to us. They are young teenagers. Isn’t it that time when clothes and boys are starting to be interesting? Isn’t it the time when you start to doubt that adults had everything figured out? It’s the time when personality develops, but there is perhaps one or two fights. That’s it. People’s lives don’t revolve just on whether to conform or not, but Ruth and Lucille’s relationship does. Maybe adding this means adding an extra 60 pages, but I wouldn’t mind. Robinson isn’t terrible when the pen gets away from her, so writing a bit of what she does best can’t do harm.

It’s a beautiful novel though, one that deserves its place in the canon. Even if it fails in the same way most realists do, Robinson keeps the intimacy. She never builds a wall of words that separates us from the charactes, like Updike or Malamud. She rarely takes her eyes off the characters, and what’s left in the end is not the philosophical ramblings but the feelings that we really were there. This is what realism is all about.

3.5 lakes out of 5