Archive for February, 2010

A Story A Day: A Vain Man Makes A Poor Friend

After an unintentional hiatus, we’re back!  And what better to get our literary taste buds back in order than scandal, murder, and thoughts on the modern man?  In this episode: “The Gioconda Smile” by Aldous Huxley.

Until recently, the name Aldous Huxley only brought Brave New World to mind, so I was pretty surprised by the modernist literary style found in “The Gioconda Smile”.  This is no sci-fi tale of the future, and its focus is far from the political and scientific questions that are still on our minds today.  Mr. Hutton, whose thoughts the reader is trapped in, is a man unhappy with his marriage.  His wife seems to be dying.  She complains about being sick constantly.  But instead of being compelled to stay near her in support, Mr. Hutton feels driven away toward other women.  It’s this simple feeling, and Mr. Hutton’s actions reasoned by it, that leads the man to ruin.  In a way, the overall story arc seems pretty close to that of classical tragedy.

Tragedy has always been fueled by mankind’s appeal to the less savory desires of human nature.  Most tragic elements can be attributed to the side of man that came out of Pandora’s jar.  Murder is a result of anger, or jealousy, or in some cases pure righteous folly, where a character forgets their own fallible mortal nature, often in the pursuit of “justice.”  Theft can be driven by sloth or greed.  In this story, Mr. Hutton’s own vanity (a form of pride) seems to drive him through the plot, leading him down a road of righteous folly in his self-absorbed mind state.

ARE THOSE SPOILERS?  YES.

By selectively limiting the narration to Mr. Hutton’s thoughts, this story features a focus on individual morals and their loose hold on a self-reflecting mind.  In the very first scene, Mr. Hutton is looking in the mirror and calling himself the “Christ of Ladies” in a play on words. Then he laughs at his own cleverness and flirts with Ms. Spence, a woman who is not his wife.  Next, the man is in his car with another woman, Doris, who is also not his wife.  He necks with this one.  Finally, he makes it home to his dying wife, who he upsets by refusing to take a trip with her because he claims to be too busy.  Too busy with those other hoochies, obviously.  The next day, his wife dies.

Mr. Hutton reacts accordingly, vowing to clean up his act and “live by reason…be industrious…and curb his appetites.”  He does this for about five days, then Doris (the girl from the car) writes him, and he’s right back at her side.  Disgusted with himself because “at the first itch of desire he had given way,” Mr. Hutton decides to try the other extreme.  Similar to Milton’s Satan, Mr. Hutton decides “if he were hopeless, then so be it; he would make the best of his hopelessness.”  But again, this resolution flits away under the revelation that Ms. Spence loves him madly and wants to be with him.  Mr. Hutton panics and flees from her, wondering “why had his irresponsibility deserted him, leaving him suddenly sober in a cold world?”  Seeking an escape, Mr. Hutton marries Doris and they travel in Europe, causing quite a scandal in the papers (apparently Mr. Hutton is some kind of big name).  However, he is quickly called home for an inquest when it is discovered that Mrs. Hutton was poisoned.  Mr. Hutton’s name is ruined, as are his relationships.

The real underlying point of “The Gioconda Smile” seems to be a kind of moral maxim: the self-absorbed man can never find peace in others because there is no peace in him.  Mr. Hutton fails to appreciate his wife (or at least is not honest with himself about the situation), so he looks for attention from others.  He racks up quite a list of adulteries beside the two we meet in the story, Mr. Hutton confesses at one point.  When his wife’s death shocks him, he attempts to become a better man, but his will is weak because it is driven purely by vain, egotistical desires of accomplishment.  Social and political conquests are harder than romantic conquests to Mr. Hutton, and so he slips back into his old ways.  In the end, his self-love is the source of his own self-destruction.  Tragic.

Plant

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ASAD: Billy the Poet’s Sexual Underground Revolution

In this episode: No, the title isn’t about some ridiculous cabaret act.  We’re taking a look at Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House”, the title story of his short story collection.

“Welcome to the Monkey House” is one of those stories that you will laugh at because of Vonnegut’s sometimes witty / sometimes absurd humor, but underneath the lighthearted façade this story really touches a few nerves.  It’s set in a dystopian future where the government has taken control of basically everything, from eateries to television and recreation (think 1984).  However, instead of the threat of war, Vonnegut’s world is on governmental lockdown because of the fear of overpopulation.  The planet’s population is quoted at 17 billion in the story because of technologically extended life-spans and a global World State that rarely fights with itself (I’m kind of assuming the latter of those reasons from mentions of World Presidents and the fact that war isn’t mentioned at all in the story).  Because of this fear of overpopulation and the necessity of lowering the current population, the government has passed mandatory birth-control legislation, forcing everyone to take “ethical birth control” that numbs them from the waist down, and began encouraging people to report to their nearest Suicide Parlor, which are staffed by six foot tall women in goth makeup, purple spandex, and black leather boots who know judo and karate.  These are the women people are supposed to ask for the hypodermic needle.

The story centers on Nancy, one of these Parlor Hostesses, and her run-in with Billy the Poet, a notorious “nothinghead” (one who doesn’t take their ethical birth control pills) that has been abducting Hostesses and “deflowering” them.  But when Nancy meets up with Billy, there is a lot more to be considered than her work duties.

[Minor spoilers in the works]

Vonnegut has a particularly interesting writing style.  It’s almost glossy, but there’s detail there for sure.  It was odd to me that the second half of this story very blatantly has a rape.  There’s not a “rape scene” per se, but there’s no ambiguity about it.  However, the writing doesn’t change, and given the setup, it isn’t made to seem like such a horrible thing.  Now, before taking offense to the previous line, let me continue.  It isn’t made to seem bad, but if you really stop to think about it, you realize that neither Billy (the rule-breaker / anti-hero here), Nancy (the rule-follower), or the government (the rule-maker) has it right here.  At least, that’s how I feel about it.  Vonnegut’s whole m.o. seems to be to make people think.  His writing has a sarcasm that isn’t quite biting, maybe more like a gnawing sarcasm; it’s constantly just chewing away at the edges of your consciousness, trying to worm its way into your brain instead of forcing itself in.  Vonnegut’s writing was viral.

So, if nobody’s getting it right here, what should be done?  Well, I think we’re still working on that one.  This story (and most of them in this collection) addresses several issues that are still relevant.  Overpopulation isn’t a hot issue yet, but it’s climbing toward the top.  When you live on a planet with limited resources (and, ahem, space) it has to become an issue once certain animals start living longer, not to mention pile up their junk all over the place.  Ethical suicide is already a hot topic, though it seems to have quieted down since Dr. Jack Kevorkian was jailed.

Last but not least, a big portion of the debate in this story is between morals and science.  Vonnegut really hit the nail on the head near the beginning of the story:

                “The pills were ethical because they didn’t interfere with a person’s ability to reproduce, which would have been unnatural and immoral.  All the pills did was take every bit of pleasure out of sex.
                 Thus did science and morals go hand in hand.”

 In this vein, Billy the Poet represents the sort of moral alternative, introducing an updated version of the pill-a-day birth control to Nancy at the end of the story, while the government plays the role of inconsiderate science, refusing to rely on voluntary birth control and instead demanding compulsory numbings.

 As a final thought, I think it’s very clever how Vonnegut would choose to associate poetry and sex.  It’s easy to forget in today’s age that poetry used to be the number two woo-ing tool…right next to money.  In a socialist society where money has lost all its value, it seems like a viable alternative.  Of course, the censorship required in Vonnegut’s dystopian world-state would never allow this.  So, you get this sort of rebellious, sexual Robin Hood character in Billy the Poet who might not be quite a hero, but is still trying to do something good, if in a bad way.

That’s all for today.  Now I’m off to work until 10p.  Wish me luck.  I have no idea what the next story will be, but it WILL be up tomorrow.  I can guarantee…because I’ll be off work.  If you have any requests, send them today!

Vale,

Plant

A Story A Day: Eastern Wisdom in the Hundred Acre Woods

In this filler publication: “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff.  If we’re lucky, I’ll make this a true daily double later and write up that Vonnegut story tonight.

Some people classify this book as an introduction to Taoism through A.A. Milne’s well-known characters.  I will say this: before I read this book I knew next to nothing about Taoism; after I read this book, I knew next to nothing about Taoism, but I was a much happier person.  Hoff uses Winnie, our favorite honey-loving bear, to epitomize the concept of P’u, the Uncarved Block.  Pooh’s ignorance / innocence becomes the starting point for many conversations throughout the book that really get into your mind and make you think about things in a new light.  For anyone looking for a little inspiration to be happy, if Pooh’s cuteness wasn’t enough on it’s own, try it with a taste of eastern wisdom.  Don’t worry about people flying in planes.  Birds fly every day.

Plant

Day 4: Tired…

Salve, there folks.

I worked from 11a to past 11p today.  I’m tired.  But, tomorrow is a different story (yummy puns).  I finished reading “Welcome to the Monkey House” today, and I’ll be writing on it tomorrow.  Seeya then!

Plant

A Story A Day: A Fairy, An Italian, and A Maaaaagic Bridge, OOOHHhhhh MMYYyyy

In this episode: less summary, more commentary, and Maaaaaagic with Susanna Clarke’s “Tom Brightwind, or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built At Thoresby”.

I don’t know how many readers of Susanna Clarke there are that might stumble on my blog, but if good taste was commonplace then at least one or two would find it directly.  Clarke takes the best elements of British literature, especially that crunchy leaf-dry humor, fries it up with a little Poe, and then adds her own touch of magical realism in a realm that just isn’t quite real.  The resulting mixture is always undeniable entertaining and engaging literature complete with filler footnotes, laughable caricatures, and just enough philosophy to make you think.

“Tom Brightwind…”  begins with that touch of Poe; Clarke even goes so far as to mention Blackwood’s Review as its first publisher, a magazine Poe satirized in his stories “A Loss of Breath” and, more conspicuously, “How To Write a Blackwood Article”.  This trope of establishing a real-world magazine to build credibility is used in many of Poe’s stories, and I’d be willing to bet Clarke is a fan, or at least well acquainted with the works of, with the crazy New Englander.  However, taking it a step further into the almost-reality she’s created in “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” (a book I HIGHLY recommend), Clarke cites the second publisher as Silenus’s Review, a magazine originating in “Faerie Minor”.  How perfect.  For those of you familiar with Poe, this is standard.  For those of you not familiar, check out his short stories “The Balloon Hoax” and “A Descent Into the Maelstrom” for a taste, and if you like those move on to his only novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket”.

This pseudo-real introduction ending in a mention of the Fairy Realm is the perfect segue into what this story is all about: the relationship of faeries to men (one of the claimed main goals of the whole story collection, “The Ladies of Grace Adieu”).  We are presented with two perfect examples of Human and Fairy to examine.  Tom Brightwind is a Fairy noble, complete with a self-obsession and innumerable family members that neither the reader or Tom himself can account for.  David Montefiore is an Italian doctor who lives in England that gets dragged into Tom’s adventures and tries to keep him from causing too much chaos in the human realm.  Now, there’s too much of this world already made for me to try and explain it here, but again, I would highly recommend checking out “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” to anyone who likes to read good books, and it’ll all be made clear there.  In short, there’s a fairy realm and a human realm, and while they rarely cross, the places that they do are bound to be full of interesting and anomalous happenings that most people never seem to notice.  Strange and interesting, yes?

I’ve decided to not try and spoil too many things, but if I’ve caught your interest, check out some of the stories I’ve mentioned above, or the one this article is about.  “Tom Brightwind, or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby” can be found in Susanna Clarke’s “The Ladies of Grace Adieu”.  It’s got a family of beautiful and rich fairy’s, kidnapping, intrigue, strange men in funny wardrobes, and a surprise twist where somewhere disappears on a bridge!  How can you not be interested?!  Well, if you’re not, then that’s OK.  Just be ready for tomorrow’s story: … well, the jury’s still out, but I can give you a hint.  Is it easier to shoot a barrel full of monkeys than a house full of them?

Vale!

Plant

A Story a Day: Robed Men on the Beach Should Stay Away from Little Girls

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” :  J.D. Salinger

     The idea of this series is to keep me reading and writing about literature.  I simply have too much free time right now for my own good, so I’m trying to focus my energy on a few beneficial projects instead of letting it waste away on other things.  This particular project is driven by me randomly picking a short story to read (one every day) and writing a review about it.  Given this method of selection, there are bound to be some stories that I may not have too much to say about.  I think this may be one of them, but here it goes.

     Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is a fine example of intentionally leaving the peripheral details vague.  The first half, which is only eight pages in my copy, is centered on a phone call between Muriel and her nameless Mother.  In this section the reader is introduced to one half of the main characters directly and interest begins to build around the topic of their conversation, Seymour Glass, the man Muriel is with.  The second half of the story, another eight pages, brings the scene directly to the other half of the main characters, the aforementioned Seymour and a little girl, Sybil Carpenter.  As you can see, it’s not a long story to write commentary on.  Also, just as a heads up, I haven’t read much Salinger.  I’ve never even read “Catcher in the Rye,” but I’m hoping to continue on through his “9 Stories” and get an idea of what he’s about.

SPOILERS AHOY

     This story reads more like a short exercise to me than anything.  The characters are fairly stock: Muriel, the reckless and rebellious daughter in love; Muriel’s Mother, the worrying and advising mother; Seymour, a crazy veteran; and Sybil Carpenter, an innocent young girl running around on her own while her mom has fun.  The introduction to the first half, before the phone call begins, sets the scene as a busy hotel full of New York businessmen that are hogging the phone lines.  Salinger uses this page to introduce Muriel.  She passes time waiting to use the phone by doing her nails, sewing, and other stereotypical “woman” things.  I’m not a fan of summarizing things in stereotypes, but this was written in the 50’s and I can’t think of a better way. 

     After a little too much back and forth for my taste, Muriel reveals that she is in Florida and has come there with Seymour, whom we can only assume is her boyfriends.  This is one of those left-out details.  Their conversations goes on to reveal that Seymour is a veteran and, according to a doctor back in New York, extremely unstable.  There’s no reason for this given.  It’s kind of like a game of fill-in-the-blank, or maybe Mad Libs.  After some pleading for her to come home, Muriel finally ends the conversation.  That’s it.  That’s all you get.  There is a tid-bit about how Seymour goes to the beach in his bathrobe and that he may have had a wreck in Muriel’s parent’s car, but that’s the only concrete idea we get of anything really.  This half is kind of boring, but it does serve its purpose.

     The second half of this story actually made my stomach turn a little bit because of the vague implications of the first half and the actions of Seymour.  Sybil is introduced as a talkative young girl whose first line is, but no definite age is given.  From the way she acts, I’m guessing five to eight years old.  Her mother lets her loose on the beach to go have fun, and soon she wanders far from the crowds and meets up with Seymour, who we find lying on the sand in his bathrobe with a blow-up tube as a pillow.  He seems to have a relationship with her, a fact bolstered by her first line in the story, “See more glass,” and their conversation about another young girl she seems to be jealous of for sitting next to Seymour at the piano. 

     He grabs her ankles a couple of times, and calls her nicknames like “baby,” before shortly telling her that they should go down in the water and look for “Bananafish.”  Asked what Bananafish are he makes up a story about how they go in caves to eat bananas and then swell up and can’t get out, leading to their death.  Now, this may sound silly and strange, but coming from a grown man who has isolated himself with a young girl and is luring her out into the water, the idea of a “banana” thing that swells up in a cave sounds a little less savory, and the idea of entrapment in a cave because of it seems an oblique reference to pregnancy.  If this wasn’t bad enough, once they are in the water Sybil says she sees one and he “kisses the arch of her foot.”  After this, Seymour seems a bit stranger and forces her to go back to shore.  Shortly afterwards, he returns to his hotel room, where Muriel is sleeping, grabs a gun out of his suitcase, and shoots himself in the head.

     As you can see, this seems more like an outline for something than an actual story.  The first scene is half the story, and it only seems to be a weak setup for the “main” character, Seymour.  Sybil and Seymour’s relationship is left basically to the imagination, and, personally, I’d rather not think about it.  Then, it’s over.  If anything, I think this would be a fine candidate for a writing exercise where one picks up from his suicide and focuses on one of the other characters, or even follows him into the afterlife; or this could be used as an opportunity to work on filling in the blanks.  However, on its own, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is only vaguely disturbing and unfulfilling as a read.

Symbols Make Words…Then I Do Things With Them.

Salve, peeps.

     I made this blog about ten minutes ago; I know that I don’t have any readers yet.  However, it just seems appropriate to write some sort of introduction post.  Maybe someday I will have readers, and maybe one or two of them will backtrack enough to find this.  Then maybe they’ll laugh and say, “I’m glad the posts improved!”  Or maybe not.  No matter, I’ve gone too far to turn back now.

     My given name is Brandon, but I kind of like “Plant.”  It has a nice, earthy ring to it.  Praise, offers of money, and constructive feedback can be addressed to whatever name you choose.  Negative comments and complaints may be addressed To Whom It May Concern so I’ll be sure not to read them.  I’m a recent graduate of the University of Missouri, now the proud holder of a bachelor’s degree in English – Creative Writing.  At this point, I’m waiting to hear back from M.F.A. programs and need an outlet to continue some sort of critical exercise until I’m back in school.  This is that outlet.

     The idea is to post interesting, enlightening, and intuitive reviews of stories.  Ideally, I’d like to read at least a short story a day and make a post on it.  Hopefully, I’ll find a reader base to comment on these critiques.  If not, I’ll just keep posting things on here that my friends and relatives can be pestered into reading sometimes.  Alongside these reviews, I’m sure there will be plenty of random blogs about things that may or may not be as interesting to you as they are to me.  I hope to find out it’s more the former than the latter.

    Anyway, introduction aside, first up on my “A Story a Day” (original, I know) series is: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger.  It’ll be up soon.

Vale, and thanks for reading,

Brandon (Plant)