My mixed opinions about Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe, the Best American Essays, and Tender Is The Night

huckfinnThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – This book is kinda racist. And it’s not because of the N-word; it’s because of the horrible portrayal of Jim–an adult man who is depicted as a bumbling idiot who is deathly afraid of witches and ghosts. Especially in the first third of the book, I cringed during most of the sections with Jim. There’s an entire chapter just devoted to laughing about how silly it is that Jim believes a witch is haunting him. Honestly, I am kind of surprised that this book is taught in school. It’s clear that while Twain might have sympathy for Jim, he has no empathy for him. Whereas Huck has a very multi-faceted character, because of his upbringing, he’s unable to question the morality of slavery, but he still, out of some kind of base animal pity (a feeling he’s ashamed of!) agrees to help Jim escape from slavery. Jim doesn’t get nearly this kind of complexity. He’s a plot element who also comes in as occasional comic relief whenever Twain needs to round out a chapter. That having been said, there is a fair amount of good stuff in the novel. I thought it picked up once they started rafting down the river and Huck started getting into some hijinx–dressing like a girl and hooking up with a pair of con artists and the like. But even aside from the racism, the book has structural defects. The last sections, where Tom and Huck engage in an interminable plot to break Jim out of prison are just really dull. The novel ends up kind of sputtering to a close.

best-american-essays-2011-edwidge-danticat-paperback-cover-artBest American Essays (2011), ed. by Edwidge Danticat — So I’ve been thinking about getting into the essay business. In order to see what that might involve, I read this anthology. My conclusion is that it involves a whole heap of dead parents and troubled childhoods. Actually, that’s unfair, I skipped a bunch of the essays, so the dead parent ones were actually not the worst. I don’t know what it is. I guess I just expect more craziness in my personal essays, whereas most of these essays seemed to be about explicating prosaic things using beautiful language. That’s not what I want. The best essays were, for me, the stranger ones. For instance, there was an essay by Victor LaValle in which he describes how, as a very fat college student, he used to pay 99 cents a minute to have phone sex with a 52 year old woman who lived in Upstate New York. They had, like, a regular, ongoing thing. Or a piece of reportage by Charles LeDuff about the murder–by the police–of a young black girl in Detroit. Oh, wait, the absolute craziest of the essays was one by Bridget Potter’s attempt, as a 19 year old in 1962, to get an abortion. She ends up flying to Puerto Rico and doing all kinds of shady things. I loved it. I would read a book of essays like that. But most of the essays were not like that. I mean, I like the prosaic as much as anyone, but if you’re going to describe the prosaic, you gotta bring the big guns, and these essayists just did not do that

n142421Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe — I really loved Journal Of A Plague Year and Moll Flanders, and I enjoyed this one a lot too. However, I did have issues with it that I didn’t have with the other two books. For one thing, it’s super racist. Examples: Crusoe escapes from captivity with the help of an Arab boy and then he sells the boy into slavery; after twenty years of isolation on his island, Crusoe finds another person, and the first thing he does is teach the other man to call him “Master”; Crusoe has no problem with slavery and murder, but when he discovers that nearby islanders are cannibals he goes totes crazy with godly outrage and starts plotting to murder them all. On the other hand, all of this was a lot more palatable than the racism of Huckleberry Finn because at least Defoe is not trying to dress himself up as an anti-racist. No, Crusoe hates non-whites (and Spaniards!) and nothing in the book even hints at trying to say that maybe those are not good things to do. And, other than that, the book is really fun. It’s totally unrealistic, of course, and is nothing at all like what being shipwrecked would really be like, but it is sort of the original “I am stranded on an island and am master of all that I survey” fantasy, and it’s charming in its simplicity

9780141183596Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I love The Great Gatsby and the short stories, and I’d long heard people say that this is Fitzgerald’s best novel. I would have to disagree with that assessment. It’s a good novel, an interesting novel, and even a gripping novel, but it’s also thin. All the settings feel understaffed and empty. The narration is bare-bones and dry and doesn’t have the lovely voice that characterized Gatsby. And it’s astonishing the degree to which Nicole Diver–the Zelda Fitzgerald character–is elided. She hardly gets to speak. We only get the vaguest glimmers of the form and nature of her madness. I think the novel could’ve benefited from considerably less coyness. Still, it has many strengths, particularly in the first section and last sections. The portrayal of glamorous Jazz Age couples (and, later, wrecked, dissipated Jazz Age couples) is something that Fitzgerald can do in his sleep.

independence-day-richard-ford-paperback-cover-artIndependence Day by Richard Ford – I remarked earlier in the year about how I loved The Sportswriter. And I did. I would recommend it to absolutely anyone. I am not so sure about its Pulitzer Prize-winning sequel, however. The Sportswriter had this amazing voice, you could sense the suppressed craziness in every sentence spoken by its narrator (the eponymous sportswriter–a man whose marriage broke up following the death of his youngest son). And over the course of that Memorial Day weekend, some real crazy shit goes down! Here, Ford basically does the same thing. You’ve got the same narrator. The same ersatz, jagged family dynamics. The same struggle to find his place. The same compressed time frame. And all of that is good. But the craziness is gone! The Sportswriter was a meditative book, but things also happened–the book gripped me. In Independence Day, fewer things happen and, dare I say it, the book skirted the edge of becoming tedious. But maybe if I hadn’t read the first novel, I would’ve enjoyed the second novel more. And I definitely still enjoyed Independence Day, but I would say that if you’re thinking about reading one of them, then you should go with the first one.

I would like to read a dull plotless novel, because all the plotless novels I’ve read have been too awesome

            I don’t think that any novel is really “plotless”. As long as you’ve got a character who moves around and performs actions, then there’s a plot. Normally, the term “plotless” is used in a pejorative sense, to refer to novels or films in which the action doesn’t increase in intensity (you know, the book doesn’t start with little fights and end with big fights….they’re just little fights all the way through).

But I am not using the term in that sense. I’m using it to refer to a number of books I’ve read recently that, while they are novel length, only possess about a tiny dollop of plot (maybe a short story’s worth), with the rest of these books being given over, more or less, to some kind of treatise, or lecture, or bizarre textual performance.

The most recent of these books, for me, was Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, which is about a middle-aged widower who really loves Gustave Flaubert and gets involved in an extremely minor and easily solved mystery. 80% of the novel is given over to the reflections of this guy–George Braithwaite–on Flaubert, and his attempts to build up some kind of composite mental image of what Flaubert was like as a man. These reflections include: a whole chapter on various animal metaphors Flaubert used (called the Flaubert Beastiary); a series of three chronology’s of Flaubert’s life, one triumphant one, one sad one, and one composed of extracts from his letters; an extended fictional monologue by one of Flaubert’s mistresses; a discussion of books that Flaubert wanted to write but didn’t get around to; and a long list of reasons to hate Flaubert (with counterarguments).

Now, all this Flaubertiana has some resonances with Braithwaite’s story (which exists in a sort of nimbus surrounding the death of his wife), but for most of the book, you don’t care about that. You just care about learning all kinds of fun shit about Flaubert.

And, for me, that seems to be the commonality between all the “plotless” novels I’ve read. In each case, there has been some resonance between the non-story material and the main plot, but the joy of the book has primarily come about due to my own engagement with the non-story material.

            A perfect example is the four David Markson books I’ve read (Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Reader’s Block, This Is Not A Novel, and The Last Novel). All of these books are primarily composed of various trivia about artists (as described in this blog post). Now…all of these have some kind of through-line, story-wise (particularly Wittgenstein’s Mistress). And people say that the reason they work is because Markson was incredibly skilled at choosing the right piece of trivia to put in the right place and at crafting resonances and themes that spanned across the book. And that is undoubtedly true. But that’s not what I was thinking when I read the book. What I was most often thinking was, “Wow, that is an incredibly nifty fact.”

And the same goes for the oldest plotless novel in my quiver: The Journal Of A Plague Year (which I blogged about last year). Once again, the joys of this novel are primarily the same joys as one gets from non-fiction. They’re the joys of learning something new about something really strange (in this case, plague-wracked London).

So this leaves me wondering…what would a boring plotless (or, rather, plot-sparse) novel look like? I would like to read a novel that is composed of numerous very interesting facts, but which nonetheless fails to cohere for me as a book. I think that would give me a greater appreciation for the artistry of the plot-sparse novels that I’ve read so far, because right now it feels to me like they’re mostly feeding off of the interesting nature of their nonfictional subject matter (and the freedom that the novel form gives them to present that subject matter in interesting and odd ways). And although that is probably not true, I would like to have some intuitive understanding of why it’s not true and of what Julian Barnes, David Markson, and Daniel Defoe are actually doing.

Regarding plot-sparse novels, I’m surprised that I can’t think of any SF novels which fit the bill. Considering how fond science fiction is of explication, I’d think there would be many. Certainly, the old-tyme utopia form (as in Thomas More’s Utopia or B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward) is chocked-full of plot-sparse novels. Maybe the closest I can come, for science fiction, is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which is a book whose (somewhat nonsense) plot seems like an excuse to string together some fascinating digressions. However, I am sure there are better examples of plot-sparse SF novels.

In addition to the novels I’ve mentioned above, other novels I’d like to propose for “plot-sparse” status are: the second half of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which is just a long philosophical dialogue; Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction, which is just a description of the eponymous character; and Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground, whose first half is a lecture on political and personal philosophy. I suppose Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler also fits, a little bit, but in that case the interpolations are also stories, at least kind of. And Calvino’s Invisible Cities might count too, although it feels more like a story collection with a framing device. Oh, and there’s also Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, which is (at least partly) a series of lectures by a fictional professor. I haven’t read it, but I am planning to.

What other ones can you think of?

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

I get a tremendous thrill out of reading works written in English that are more than 200 years old. When I read them, I think, “This came from a time and place unimaginably distant from today, and yet I am as close to him (or her) as if he was sitting in the same room and speaking to me.”*

However,  the pleasure I get from such works is more intellectual. I am rarely engrossed by such works. I don’t get lost in them, generally getting through them is work, albeit generally rewarding work. Most of them are in verse, and I am no great lover of verse. Even the prose works are written in strange forms that have no modern analogues: the dialogue, or the discourse, or the chronicle, or the narrative (although this last is not as bad). The writing is formal, and the conventions are unfamiliar to me. I read them, and am interested, but I rarely become thoroughly engrossed in them the way that I can become engrossed in much older, but more comprehensible, works from other cultures (like the Arabian Nights or Roman histories).

But that was not the case this time. A Journal Of The Plague Year is nearly 290 years old. It was published in 1722. But I found it intensely gripping.

Perhaps that’s not surprising. This book was published during the very early heydays of the novel, which is certainly the prose long-form that I am most familiar and comfortable with. The Wikipedia entry for A Journal of the Plague Year even calls it a novel. However, I find that classification to be somewhat dubious.

I’m not going to get all English-professory on you, because I can’t. I don’t know what the formal definition of “novel” is (and Wikipedia is no help on this), but I think that, whatever it is, novels are fictional narratives.** Around the time that the novel was developed, the structural differences between fiction and non-fiction started to become more clear.

Nowadays, we don’t have any such thing as Plato’s Dialogues or Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning Two World Systems: works of philosophy or science structured as fictional dialogues between two people. It just doesn’t make sense to people.

Nor do we have the historical romance: the presumably historical account of great people doing great events that is structured like a tale (and sometimes there’s even magic in there).

(I mean, of course that’s a simplification, since we do still have both things, like Richard Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach or Valerio Manfredi’s novels about Alexander the Great, but the former is notable exactly because it is strange, and the latter is based on primary and secondary sources, it does not purport to be and is not taken as a primary source in itself in the same that, say,  Le Morte d’Arthur did).

Based on that criteria, A Journal Of The Plague Year is really not quite there yet. Oh wait, here is where I should probably explain what it’s about. Basically, it purports to be the journal of a person who stayed in London during the outbreak of bubonic plague (The Great Plague) in 1665 (yes, right before the fire, to which the author makes numerous references as well). It’s not really clear how fictionalized the work is. Of course it’s not Daniel Defoe’s journal, since he was five when the plague happened. And he very clearly wrote it, in his own words, sometime around 1720. But the degree to which it’s based on his uncle Henry Foe’s journals (it came out under the name H.F.) was unclear to me, at least after the five minutes of Googling I was willing to devote to this topic.

However, that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this account is way too much like a real journal to come off like a fictional journal. Nowadays, a fictional journal would still be written in scenes, it would have named characters, dialogue, it would describe actions as they happen. But this account is the way real journals have usually been: it’s an account of thoughts, anecdotes, impressions, arguments. There are long sections where he argues about the government’s policy with regards to dealing with the plague (particularly shutting up health people in houses with their infected family members). There are all kinds of colorful anecdotes (usually about infected people running down the street bare-ass naked). There are many images, but few real scenes. It comes across far more like a history than like a novel, and that kind of fuzziness ought to have really put me off it.

But it didn’t, because, really, who wants to read a novel about the plague? You’d just end up with something gross, like Camus’ The Plague, where dozens of pages are expended on the pangs of being parted from far-off lovers while thousands of people die between paragraphs. I’d rather have a gory first-person journal, anyway day. Because, you know what? There’s never going to be another Plague Year.

I know, astonishing. I mean, there are far more diseases nowadays than there were in 1665, but there are no plagues (diseases that quite literally decimate a city’s population within one year and then disappear). And while that makes me happy, it also means that without works like this, we lose some vital information about the human spirit.

What do people act like when there’s a plague? What do they think about? What precautions do they take? How do those precautions work? Without a book like this, we’d never know.

As I said, the book is extremely readable, that’s because (aside from the little problem of its fictionality), it fits quite neatly into one modern nonfiction genre: the first-person explication. In these works (Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions Of An English Opium Eater are good examples that I’ve read recently), the author spices up what is partly a stately explanation of facts with a sort of shadowy frame story that periodically inserts itself into the foreground to deliver anecdotes to support said facts. It’s not the best vehicle for delivering facts, or making arguments as to causes or results, but it is an amazing vehicle for carrying impressions, and when you’re talking about something that is never, ever going to happen again, impressions are just as important as facts.

Also, just as an aside, this novel is interesting in that it doesn’t venture into the drawing room at all. All the gentry of Austen novels are absent from the account, they left the city at the first sign of trouble. The Royal Court is off at Oxford acting out their own version of the Decameron. The hero of the novel is a saddler (someone who makes saddles?). And the people in it are servants, workmen, tradesmen, artisans, maids, bailiffs, etc. I always find that to be particularly exciting, particularly in an older work.

Here’s a link to the Project Gutenberg version that I read, in case anyone wanted it.

*Although the versions of their works that I read have probably modernized the spelling. Maybe the pronunciation was a bit different back then, too, but, given the comprehensibility of their written English, I imagine that I’d still be able to understand their spoken English.

**Yes, there are things commonly called novels that totally violate this rule, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood…but…whatever, defining shit is hard, yo.