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.

In which I write about the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy

            I finally read the Hunger Games. I started reading it and then, three hours later, I was done. I read it because I love Woody Harrelson. When I heard that he was the drunken mentor in the HG movie, I was like, “I really want to see that.” Normally, I don’t particularly care about reading the book before I watch the movie, but in this case, I decided to. It was pretty enjoyable, but I’m not too sure about whether I’m going to read the next few books. (Hey, umm, some HG spoilers are gonna follow, so beware).

The book is about a teenage girl who’s dispatched to fight to the death on television for the entertainment of an audience of jaded sybarites (in a futuristic dystopia, of course). It has hints of Rollerball, Battle Royale, The Running Man and “The Most Dangerous Game”.  The only innovation of the novel is that the protagonist realizes that she needs to have the audience’s good will in order to survive. This is because the audience is able to dispatch gifts to help their chosen kid, and those gifts can (and do) mean the difference between winning and dying.

However, because this contest has a sort of reality show flavor, what really matters is building some kind of credible storyline. A kid needs to feel like flesh and blood; someone the audience can empathize with and root for. In order to this, the protagonist of the Hunger Games (whose name is Katniss) fakes that she is falling in love with one of her fellow contestants Peeta. While she’s running around killing other kids in a series of moderately gripping action sequences, she also learns how to inhabit her role as a starstruck lover (which is made much more poignant by the fact that she might possibly have to kill her ‘lover’ in order to win the game). I thought this was a neat conceit. It sort of came out of nowhere about a third of the way into the book, and it slowly grew to dominate the whole story. This whole reality show / playacting part of the story was by far its best part.

And I don’t really trust any of the other novels to have good parts that are as good. I mean, the author can’t use this reality show conceit again, right? And even if she did, it wouldn’t really be fresh. I don’t know why I am so suspicious of a series whose first entry I enjoyed so much, but I think what it comes down to is that I just don’t trust Suzanne Collins enough. Pretty much every series starts out with a few good ideas and then slowly exhausts them until eventually the later books of the series turn into pitiful self-parodies. When a series starts out with one good idea, it becomes really hard for me to believe that there is a lot more stuff lying underneath.

On a side note, my problems with the book were exactly the same as everyone else’s problems. Collins manipulates the situations in this book to exculpate her heroine of any of the moral guilt from killing a bunch of other kids. The other kids are either psychopaths or they get killed by the psychopaths. Katniss’ hands remain clean. To me, that seems like a waste. If you have a book where innocent kids are forced fight each other to the death…then some innocent kids ought to actually fight each other to the death!

As a writer, I do kind of understand why Collins did that, though. The audience for stories with moral complexity is a lot smaller than the audience for stories without moral complexity. Even a lot of the series that people claim have a lot of moral complexity are actually just standard Good-and-Evil narratives dressed up in gray clothing. A prime example of this is A Song Of Ice And Fire. People claim that this series is very dark and gritty, but actually, from book one, you know who the heroes are and who the villains are. Sure, some of the villains turn out to be likeable and some of the heroes turn out to be stupid, but very little occurs to make you question the original good/bad classifications.

Even in my own stories, I sometimes step back and am like, “Whoah, no one is going to like this main character” and then I change around some stuff to make him/her more likeable. Because that’s what people want.

This reminds me of the section in A Moveable Feast where Hemingway criticizes Fitzgerald for altering his stories to make them more saleable:

I thought of [F. Scott Fitzgerald] as a much older writer. I thought he wrote Saturday Evening Post stories that had been readable three years before, but I never thought of him as a serious writer. He had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into saleable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoring.

When I read this passage, I was shocked. Since Fitzgerald’s stories are pretty sublime, I wondered what in hell it was that he was changing in them? I had a sneaking suspicion that maybe if I read the unchanged stories, I wouldn’t like them very much.

Midnight in Paris was fun but trite

I just finished watching Midnight In Paris. Of course, I loved it. How could any lover of A Moveable Feast or The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas or the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald fail to love this movie? Watching a witty, diffident young man from the modern day pal around with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein and Dali and Picasso makes me as happy as a musician biopic must make a music fan, or a based-on-a-real-story sports film must make a sports fan.

However, there was also something kind of trite about the film. In the movie, a thirtysomething screenwriter (a self-described “Hollywood hack”) is visiting Paris with his fiancé. He fights with her during the day (she does not share his ardor for Paris and evinces no interest in his novel-in-progress), and he spends his nights travelling back in time and experiencing 1920s Paris with his literary idols (mostly an incredibly pretentious Hemingway).

The story is basically about how the protagonist, Gil Prender, doesn’t really believe in himself. He’s not sure whether his writing is good. He’s not sure he has what it takes to be a novelist. He came to Paris in his twenties in order to write, but he didn’t trust himself enough to stay. He left, he sold out, and he’s regretted it ever since. I don’t think it can be much of a spoiler to say that at the end of the movie, he rediscovers his confidence in himself.

Now, I won’t say that it’s not important to believe in oneself. Few artists are able to work without a tremendous amount of audacity. But…that audacity is about continuing to work, despite everything and everyone telling you that you should quit. It’s hardly a triumph of audacity when a magical taxi takes you back into the past, and all of your literary heroes befriend you and give you peptalks on what it means to be an artist, and Gertrude Stein and Hemingway read your novel and tell you that you’re awesome.

You’d have to be a huge fool to not stay in Paris and take a serious shot at novel-writing after the universe reorders the fabric of space and time just so you can receive a boost to your literary pretensions.

That’s why this movie is trite. It’s not a real story, it’s a daydream. Oh, of course, Gil comes away from it with some weird lesson about nostalgia and how people should look forward and live in the present and not always be idealizing the past. But that’s dumb. That’s not what the movie is about. The movie is about a man who’s settling for a career he doesn’t want, just because it pays well. It’s about a man who’s settling for a wife he doesn’t love, just because she’s beautiful. And the movie’s answer to these conundrums is for the universe to provide Gil with pretty substantial evidence that he can get any woman he wants and that his writing is spell-binding.

To me, that’s not an interesting story. I’d prefer to watch the opposite of this, a story that has all the fun caricatures of 1920s lions, but none of the bits where those lions repeatedly assure the Woody Allen stand-in that he’s definitely one of them. I’d like to watch a movie about a man who goes back and finds that his (in real life, astonishingly cruel) literary idols think he’s a bore and a fool. I’d like to watch a story about a man who hands his novel to Gertrude Stein and gets told that he has no talent. What does that man do? Does he switch careers? Does he dump his beautiful fiancé?