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

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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

John Updike – Rabbit, Run

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Writers try to express their meaning not just by their choice of words, but the way they’re used. Raymond Carver wrote about the simple life using simple words and simple structure. Paul Auster’s fiction tends to contain multiple layers, so his sentences tend to drag on, too. As for John Updike, any sentence that is not longer than a line is useless. A few of these survived, but they’re endangered species in Rabbit, Run. It’s unclear why.

There is a pretty big paragraph which describes the planet in the garden Rabbit works in. It’s a horrible piece of writing. It’s literally a list of the plants and a brief descriptions of them. It’s not writing and it’s not typing. It’s lifting up straight from a Beginner’s Guide to Garden Plants. Updike could have at least put in the end the name of the guide he lifted the descriptions from. After wading through the forest that is Updike’s words, I wanted to have some idea of how these plants look like.

There’s no way Updike actually wrote that paragraph. Early on in the novel, Updike describes a basketball game with big sentences and big paragraphs. The shock that someone used all these words and didn’t stumble wears off quickly. It’s that good. It transmits the energy of a basketball game, and this game is an important character building moment. That’s a good reason to linger on it. What did that description of the garden helped? Why were the roofs of the houses were described over, and over, and over?

Updike tells me a simple story using complex language. He’s the antithesis of Raymond Carver, only writing about the same thing. Updike occasionally writes paragraph that are as good as Carver, but then he quickly falls again. This style of writing is just not suited to the subject matter and the themes. Worse, Updike hints that he says the same empathy and insight that makes Carver’s fiction so engrossing.

Updike wants to transmit the dullness of suburban life, but can dull life be described in such an explosive language? Maybe, and Updike sometimes reads like he can do it. Too often, he lingers on irrelevant details. It makes sense when he lingers on the women’s bodies, and even on the golf game even though it ended up being incomprehensible. He can even make a description of a chair important. The problem is, Updike is not selective in what he describes. He describes everything, both things that are irrelevant to the story and themes and things that are.

Descriptions are more than to tell us what the scene looks like. In fact, ‘what the scene looks like’ is not that important. Whether there’s a picture of Hemingway or Steinbeck in the room is irrelevant – until it tells us more than just that the picture is there. If the author tells me there’s a picture of Hemingway on the wall, it should be because he wants to tell me the character is obsessive over Hemingway, is literary, wants to be macho, or something like that. This is called being selective in what you describe. Updike doesn’t fail because he’s bad at describing, but because he’s not selective in what he describes. Even a talented guitarist would be boring somewhere in a sixty-minute jam session.

The story itself crumbles underneath this weight. Rabbit is an asshole, and that’s great. Updike is willing to explore a character that John Green would have turned into a one-dimensional antagonist. He makes Rabbit human and believable enough, but he forgot to show us what made him appealing to other people. It’s to easy to imagine how a once basketball star would be fun to have around, but there aren’t any examples of that. People say they love him a lot, but that’s it. There’s even an instance when one says they can’t describe why. Was that a moment of self awareness?

The asshole aspects of Rabbit are great. Updike knows how to make understand, if not necessarily agree with Rabbit’s actions. As immoral as he is, every action of his makes sense. He’s also not just an asshole. Bad people don’t want to be bad. They just have a different set of values. Rabbit is capable of being moral just as he is capable of being an asshole. Two great moments show these sides. One moment is where Updike nails what “guys entitled to sex” means. It’s a great portrait of the sexual insecurity of males. Another is a big plot moment where Rabbit’s character turns around. It’s easy to make this an out-of-character moment and make the plot go dumb like E-40. Since Updike is wise enough to portray Rabbit is a human first, this sudden burst of good just makes him more real.

Updike is just as good as portraying the other characters. Every character has its own values and worldviews. It’s most apparent when Rabbit visits his parents-in-law and then his own parents, but morose in two scenes. There is one section that centers on Eccles, and another on Janice. In these scenes, Updike follows them in an ordinary day, but by selectively describing some things he gets into these characters’ head. Eccles is interesting to lead his own novel. Janice is more vague, although her scene is more important. Still, he managed to make the ‘who’s guilty’ question of the novel a never-ending debate. He did it not by being too vague, but by creating real, flawed human beings which are the cause of such tragedies.

These great moments though tend to be buried under heaps of words. Rabbit, Run feels like a language exercise, but it shouldn’t be. It’s a simple story about simple people. Even if these simple people go through an epic quest, writing them in a simple language will give them more respect (As in Grapes of Wrath). It’s worth reading for its story and ideas, but it’s a short book that has about 70 extra pages. Updike probably just wanted to avoid writing a novella.

2 rabbits out of 5