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

 

Stephen King – Carrie

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It’s odd to read this now. King is a behemoth. People who don’t read books probably know his name and he’s synonymous with Horror fiction. It doesn’t feel like he wanted to be a horror writer in his first novel. There’s blood, cruelty and a general depressive tone. What defines a story is more than these techniques.

At its heart, this is a psychological novel. Its main concern is not with horrifying, but exploring different viewpoints. A lot of characters are pushed to the extreme, especially Carrie’s mother. It doesn’t make them any less understandable. King just makes everyone equally exaggerated.

Carrie’s mom is terrible, but she has reasons for what she does. While she’s an exaggerated portrait of an overprotective mother, she never becomes a strawman. King writes events that make her personality understandable. She was already predisposed to extreme religious views. When so many things happen that only strengthen that position, her already narrow view becomes narrower.

It’s weird to see King forgive his antagonist like this. He didn’t do it in other stories, where someone was evil because of something in the past and ruined the fun for everyone. Margaret White is more of a warning, showing us how we can become so protective (and thus dangerous).

The Evil Hot Girl gets a worse treatment, but it’s still there. Things make sense from her point of view. She’s used to getting what she wants easily. Such people react with anger when people challenge them, especially if it’s to protect a weirdo. Chris was raised in praise of normality. Her cruelty comes from hatred towards Carrie, but the hatred doesn’t come out of nowhere. Carrie was a challenge, a weirdo who made her presence known and that people sided with. Of course Chris will feel threatened.

The novel isn’t about horrifying readers. It’s about bullying. It doesn’t even use this controversial subject as an instigator to spill blood. The first half of the book is concerned with what bullying is and how it can affect people.

There’s an irony here. Parents want to protect their children, especially from bullies. This overprotectiveness can become bullying. Margaret has good intentions, but she still bullies Carrie. Confining, locking away and limiting a person’s freedom is a form of bullying. It’s just as harmful as insults. It’s a form of violence. Margaret tried to protect Carrie from the world, but her overprotectiveness made the world more dangerous since she never taught Carrie how to handle the world.

Bullying doesn’t start from pure sadism. A person becomes a target for bullying when he’s odd enough and don’t know how to react. This what makes the locker room scene so effective. The whole blood-from-vagina thing isn’t an a horror thing. It’s just texture. The purpose of that scene is to show what makes kids bully another. Carrie was a weirdo, getting her period late and not knowing what it is. It’s something the kids can use for their entertainment.

Yes, bullying is that cruel. There was nothing very exaggerated about it. Bullying escelates from insults to such acts of violence, complete with the crowd cheering. Not everyone is going to jump in, though. This is a surprising insight from King. Instead of painting everyone as just out to make Carrie miserable, he recognizes not all of them are evil.

Some of them may even regret. Some of the popular kids are probably busy having too much fun to care. That is far more realistic. Some people will get drunk with power being at the top of the popularity chain. Others will have too much confidence, enjoy their life too much to make time to make someone else miserable.

It’s hard to trust them when you’re used to bullying so much. When you’re a nail, everything looks like a hammer. Carrie isn’t an antagonist but a tragic character. She was pushed around so much that she couldn’t believe a good thing was happening. She is quick to look for how other people will hurt her and jump to conclusions.

The most horrifying thing about the explosion at the end is not all the blood and the damage. It’s the fact we understand Carrie and that her reaction seems reasonable.

There are excerpts from various fictional texts scattered around the novel, and they further emphasize that people were acting based on what they know and what seems reasonable to them. It’s not just a way to show off writing styles. The focus is how each text treats the case – an autobiography with a personal tone a cold interview and an academic text that remains skeptic of everything.

This causes King to spoil his own book. He would continue doing it in later novels, but it doesn’t matter here. The novel relies more in its exploration of viewpoints than withholding information. The fact King already dispenses How It Ends and the Secret Power allows him to spend the rest of the pages developing characters.

It does take a nose-dive in the climax. While it remains fun, all the depth is gone. It’s a typical King climax where everything goes batshit crazy. Gas stations explode, people die, blood pours like rivers and so on. It’s not scary anymore. It’s just one disaster after the next. It moves in brisk pace, but there’s nothing to it.

At least it never becomes too pornographic. King doesn’t waste two paragraphs on drop of blood and keeps the events moving. Still, it’s disappointing. It doesn’t have any of King’s weirdness which lifted his weird stories. It doesn’t develop the characters furhter. The editor went AWOL in that section and it shows.

Overall, it’s a tight book. I guess the reason King’s later works are so unfocused is because he was beyond editors. Here,

3 periods out of 5