Archive for February, 2011


Effortless!  Fey!  Engrossing!  Eloquent!  There’s some blurbs, and I mean every word of them.  These are short works, hence my dual review, but they are the very soup and cheese of madness in literature.  The acrobatics that Carroll puts the English language through are as breathtaking as they are simply presented.  But let’s get specific.

Throughout Alice’s adventures in Wonderland there is nary a plot in sight.  A plot would make too much sense, or would too directly funnel the dreamy insanity of the text.  Instead, I would describe the style and product as one of uncorked effervescence.  These stories are made of bubbles.  Things just pop up, but you’re no more surprised than to see boiling water in a pot.  And then things just pop entirely and you move on.  Or rather, you fall deeper in.

There is absolutely no explanation given at any point and I wanted for none.  No explanation could satisfy.  The characters are all distinct and Alice’s experience of each of them is completely honest.  This world breathes but it doesn’t follow our rules.  There is a sense that underneath it all, there is a set of guiding principles by which the dimension and its inhabitants operate, but Carroll never tries to bring it to the surface and neither should we.  It is organic, it is inexplicable, it cannot be reproduced.  It makes as little sense as lightning in a bottle and is just unlikely to happen a second time.  But the craziest thing of all is that it did.  Lewis Carroll put pen to paper and banged out two trips to Wonderland, and the second didn’t fall on its face.  In fact, I preferred it.

You see, lightness and inconsequence and variety all have their place in illusory literature.  And yet the bubbles burst, the steam dissipates, and the pot settles down.  I remember laughing aloud and often while reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I read sections to friends and tasted the words trip and tumble over my tongue.  But I don’t remember any of it particularly well.  It is an ill-defined feeling.  Through the Looking-Glass is another beast entirely.  There Wonderland bares its fangs but slightly, and yet the feeling burrows and bloats and sets up shop in the back of your mind, making itself comfortable and plopping down in self-satisfaction right on top of your brainstem.  There’s something wanton in it and the constant poetry pushes sense up against the ropes.

I can complain only about the framing narratives.  I could not care less about Alice’s sister or her cats, and when she speaks in the “real” world you want to stop up your ears and pretend she’s not there.  Carroll relies too heavily on wrapping up the stories as dreams or sleepy-time fantasies.  I don’t blame him; he couldn’t have had any other idea what to do with Wonderland.  He just uncaged it, a very little bit.  And that’s what we have to do.  Open up your door, whisper the words, listen to how they hop and skip out of your mouth and into your ears.  It’s genius and it means nothing at all.  It is a glimpse into pure mind, and it is just-because.

 

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I have very little idea as to how to go about reviewing Frankenstein. Frankly, it took some effort.  I realize that I started this whole gauntlet with H.P. Lovecraft, a veritable king of overwrought and antiquarian prose, but I could not handle the dialogue (internal or external) in this book.  And considering that it is a series of first person narratives within one another, that’s saying something.  Lovecraft wrote to match a style, he wrote to elicit a feeling out of time, and yes, he overdid it quite a lot of the time.  This is not a fourth Lovecraft review, but he certainly has something to say about the book and about why I finally cracked it open.

In his seminal essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft calls Frankenstein “somewhat tinged but scarcely marred by moral didacticism.”  I’m not entirely sure that I agree.  Hardly a page–nay, hardly a paragraph passes without Victor waxing eloquent on his utter worthlessness and inhuman betrayals.  He cannot recount a moment of his story without warning his listener in the framing narrative against any repetition of his mistakes.  Further, he lambasts curiosity itself.  The novel is chock full of messages, many of them wonderful if not wonderfully wrought, but among them seems to be a painfully unnatural aversion to looking behind the pretty colors of the imminent natural order.

The story preceding the completion of the monster (overlong and consisting not so much of a family history as an epic poem in praise of upper-class rural Swiss upbringing) is clearly meant to more profoundly devastate the reader following later tragedies, but it is tough to feel deep loss when every character acts, thinks, and speaks in the exact same way.  We can never miss anyone when everyone else is the same person.  There is only one character who stands out, one character who displays anything other than tragically inappropriate sensationalism and loquaciousness, and that character is cast aside from the human race entirely.  Yes, Frankenstein’s monster is the novel’s single interesting and unique player.  But holy crap is he fascinating.

Despite Shelley’s unfortunate inability to let the monster speak as anything other than a presumptuous  noble, massively educated and with gilded tongue, the creature manages to articulate himself more clearly, sincerely, and sympathetically than all the rest of the cast combined.  When he is given the opportunity to finally speak for himself (halfway through the book about two framing narratives deep) it is a shot to the mouth.  It is waking up to a jack-hammer on your nightstand.  The “daemon’s” brief(ish) autobiography is spectacular and exactly what the novel needed as a whole.  It reinvigorated me; I became excited to read the book and dove in at every opportunity.  It gives a focus and a pace to the story that the theretofore meandering speechifying of Shelley had hogtied and hidden behind a shed of ostentation.  And then it was over.  And Frankenstein continued in his blind game of both considering himself the lowest and unluckiest of human beings and blaming his creation for everything from stubbing his toe to the very Earth pulling a Krypton and blowing the fuck up.  And yes, this is a charge which I will level at the character at every turn.  Seriously, any sympathy he may have incurred is swept into the toilet every time he gives voice to his apparently unparalleled woes.  But enough about Frankenstein; that guy sucks.

Frankenstein’s monster is an incredible creation, both of the title character and of Shelley.  The manner in which he relates the creeping development of consciousness is enthralling; his first periods of animal survival have in them something beyond the experience of the author; his early observations of humanity pull one up and out of cynicism and gives one a planetary pride; and his fall is as devastating as it is unavoidable.  Read this book.  Read the hell out of it.  Read every crappy chapter that you have to so as to absorb the story of the conglomerate creature.  Make it a part of yourself.  Prometheus was never terribly interesting, anyways.  The good stuff is what we’ve decided to do with fire ever since he slipped us some.

Continuing through my massive backlog of cheap classics via nook, I ended up spending some time with Jules Verne again rather quickly.  And I loved it.  But even now, weeks later (my reviews are very behind), I still can’t place exactly why.  Let’s try to figure that one out together.

If you think back to my review of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, you will recall that a chief complaint was the overall repetitive nature of the text.  Well, Verne (or his translator) doesn’t seem to have quite so much trouble with that here.  You will also recall that my chief praises were of the book’s adventurous spirit and sudden gravitas.  Well, those are both present here as well, and in spades.  Around the World does seem to take much more of a “and then there was this cause why the hell not” sort of approach to the story, but it works.  I mean, there’s not much going on in terms of plot, but it is certainly more cohesive and present than in 20,000 Leagues. And what Around the World lacks in Nemo, it makes up (partly, at least) in Phileas Fogg.

Loathe as I am to continually compare this book to my last with Verne, I have no choice.  Honestly, I loved them both, but this one just shoots out of the gate with so much more breathlessness.  The characters, while all equally inexplicably and impossibly noble, are differentiated significantly more than “this one’s Canadian and impatient, these ones love fish, and this ubermensch has a mysterious past.”  Don’t doubt that they are all caricatures, but it’s a book about a bet to circumnavigate the world.  And that’s exactly what it feels like.

After the exhaustive cataloguing of Conseil, I fully expected his counterpart here, the circus-gymnast-cum-suddenly-devoted-manservant Passepartout, to be some sort of amateur geographer, listing off altitudes and precipitation and waxing eloquent on the virtues of European imperialism.  And that last part does have a place in the story, but humorous and speedy observation takes the place of global oceanic surveys and the very few big events that happen deftly blend that same rush and humor with an honest desire to give the audience a couple of delicious red herrings and make the characters as genuinely good as possible.

I really didn’t mind in the least just how much of this story Jules Verne pulled out of his butt as I burned through it over some toast and  orange juice.  Don’t take any of the characters so seriously as Captain Nemo (who continues his badass reign) and don’t worry too much about the few incidences of spontaneous Europeanization.  Nothing this breezy can offend too deeply and it’s too much fun, and far too short, to get up in arms about it.

A shorter (and likely less eloquent review) yes, but it’ll suffice for what it is I’m reviewing.  Give it a shot.  I’m no Phileas Fogg, but I’ll bet it’ll sit with you just fine.