Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Let the Great World Spin

            Let the Great World Spin* is not a story about competing DJs sporting “Where’s Molly?” tanks. Although, while I’m on the subject of douchebags, let me highly recommend the movie We Are Your Friends starring Zac Effron. Mid-spin, he inspiringly questions the crowd, “Does it ever get better than this???” Cue echoes and awe. I’m serious in my recommendation.

            Instead, the 2009 novel by Colum McCann, takes a historical event, fictionalizes it, and uses it as a launching point for multiple overlapping stories. In 1974, Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope that he rigged between the Twin Towers. The novel portrays the same stunt performed by a fictitious character. *Fun* fact: tightrope walking is called funambulism.

            While the daring feat is entertaining in its own right, McCann chooses to shift focus. His novel features 12 + protagonists; each is connected in some way to the Twin Tower tightroper, but their stories take us in vastly different directions. Sometimes, we’re flung to the past. Sometimes, we’re punted to the future. Sometimes we chill in the present. Similar to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, the narrative bounces around, but there’s an element of fluidity given the connection between characters.

            A novel overflowing with protagonists is difficult to execute. How much time do you spend on each? Do you emphasize cohesion, having characters relate to each other in a complete closed loop, or do you allow for holes? In my opinion, McCann navigated these issues pretty well; however, I don’t think it’s entirely appropriate to congratulate a guy on the ability to create a bunch of problems for himself and then respond in a slightly above average way. Maybe build fewer hurdles and then jump over them perfectly? It’s like when dunk contest participants have an elaborate, impressive start but they’re not able to finish. Maybe my standards are too high-- but if your book wins a National Book Award for Fiction, when perfect predecessors like To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, Franny and Zooey, Everything That Rises Must Converge, and Slaughterhouse-Five only came as finalists, best believe I expect a slam-dunk.
            At his best (and his best is very, very good), I yearned for the continuation of those stories. Give me more of the recovered-addict seeking contrition. At his worst, I wondered about the relevancy or value of those stories. Don’t throw me an isolated chapter about a computer hacker with little to no context. These are my demands!

            In a post-script interview, McCann acknowledges the connection between the destruction of the Towers on 9/11 and the redemptive powers of a sprawling but cohesive city that comes together in times of darkness. Not just overwhelming darkness, like that of 9/11, but the little darknesses that plague everyday life. He breathes this message into his novel, and I’m thankful that his work exudes optimism even when it’s punctuated with sadness. Unfortunately, the extensive narration came across as excessive to me, despite his noble efforts. Let the Great World Spin receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*McCann, Colum. Let the Great World Spin. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

American Pastoral

            American Pastoral* is allegedly Philip Roth’s magnum opus; I think it’s a magnum shotgun that he used to shoot himself in the foot. In my opinion, the 1997 novel is terribly off-putting; yet, it won the Pulitzer Prize and it’s listed in Time’s All-Time 100 Novels (but then again, so is Naked Lunch). Why do I disagree with the larger literary world consensus?

            American Pastoral is #1 of Roth’s “American Trilogy”. I Married a Communist is #2 and The Human Stain is #3. Roth likes to write fiction rooted in historical fact. As a result, his works often serve as a critique of the time period and a reflection of the culture’s values. American Pastoral follows a wealthy, successful family in New Jersey in the 1960s. The main character, Seymour, represents the American dream: attractive, patriotic family man who works hard, respects others, and capitalizes on opportunity. On the surface, he’s killing it; beneath the surface, everything is falling apart. In the end, we discover “the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things” (Roth, 423).

            Fortunately, there are plenty of novels that take conventional American ideals and turn them on their head without boring you to death (ahem, anything by Steinbeck). Put simply, Roth uses too many words about too many uninteresting, unimportant things. He fixates on minutia. He’ll reveal a shocking plot point and then belabor us with superfluous fact until we’re totally sidetracked. When an object is mentioned, we know its color, size, and manufacturer. Description can sometimes be effective, but in Roth’s case, it’s consistent sensory overload in a way that detracts from the meat of the story. I’m a Texan. Don’t take away my meat.

            To add insult to injury, he moves through past, present, and future too much. He transitions fluidly—we know what era he’s referring to—but it’s often unnecessary. I find myself repeatedly wanting him to stay on course and complete a thought without interjecting a flashback. I appreciate Roth’s time hopping much more in The Plot Against America because it serves a purpose every time.

            Overall, I valued American Pastoral more during the process of synthesizing and reviewing the novel than when I was actively reading. Because of the length and nonlinear timing, I discovered connections and mystery while looking back. I believe that Roth possesses a unique skill in accomplishing that specific feat, but it does not totally override the fact that a real-time reading of the text is arduous and unenjoyable. American Pastoral receives 2 out of 5 camel humps.

*Roth, Philip. American Pastoral. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

            Ken Kesey participated in a CIA program known as Project MKUltra. The project experimented with various drugs and techniques on human subjects to expand methods of interrogation and torture. Kesey worked as an orderly at a mental hospital where some MKUltra tests took place. He volunteered to partake and personally recorded his experiences, expressing a fondness for LSD. No, this is not an InfoWars article. Gross.

            Kesey’s role at the mental institution helped him hit a sweet spot in his writing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest*. By working the night shift at the hospital, he could observe patients from the institution’s perspective. Alternatively, his involvement in experiments (with questionable legality and ethics) allowed him to see from the patient’s side. The line between “sane” and “insane” blurs when you realize firsthand that larger forces are at play, designed to manipulate. You are a pawn in their big game.

            Checkmate! Kesey isn’t anyone’s bitch. After reading about him in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I’m impressed with his ability to be in all the craziness but also above all the craziness. He’s a participant but also seemingly omniscient. I mean, the guy elected to try electroshock therapy on himself so that he could accurately write about the experience in Cuckoo.

            And, in my opinion, he nails it. Kesey’s vivid characters are no accident. Our narrator is “Chief” Bromden, a schizophrenic half-Native American. He and the rest of the ward are greatly affected when a new, raucous man, Randal McMurphy, is committed to the hospital. McMurphy is not mentally ill in the conventional sense—he uses insanity as a means to avoid his sentence at a prison work farm. Gradually, he brings clarity to the other patients who had formerly subserviently yielded to every order from above. The head nurse, Nurse Ratched, is not pleased with the patients’ newfound gall, and she and McMurphy butt heads in big ways.

            Kesey is the ultimate real-life anti-conformist, so it’s fitting that he’d write a novel that addresses the oppressive powers of institutions—specifically government-sanctioned ones. Ironically, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of many novels often found on banned-books lists. Nothing like trying to stifle a book about the cruelty of stifling an individual’s agency. 

            Mental health services in our country are still inadequate, but they’re not as barbaric as they were during the time of Kesey’s writing. Of course, the hospital in the book is symbolic of other domineering authorities that Kesey railed against; however, there is also a literal denunciation of mental health procedures within the novel, particularly electroshock therapy.  

            While Kesey’s novel receives largely positive reception, there are some complaints about the text’s overt racism (the orderlies’ race is ridiculed and the N-word is used) and underlying sexism (McMurphy fights “the matriarchy” aka a woman nurse and generally women are depicted as conniving to emasculate the men around them). McMurphy’s questionable character certainly warrants discussion, but it doesn’t make Cuckoo a *bad book* unworthy of reading. As I mention in my review of The Awakening, characters are complex and imperfect, which is exactly what makes them interesting, McMurphy is a sexist, racist pig, so he speaks and acts like a sexist, racist, pig. That doesn’t mean that his crusade against conformity should be ignored. His character flaws and insecurities add to the intricacy of the discussion.

            Equipped with the knowledge of Kesey’s background that contributed to the unique perspective in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I give the novel 4 out of 5 camel humps. In the future, I would love to compare his work to Girl Interrupted, which is a more contemporary display of the problems that continue to plague mental health diagnoses and treatment.

*Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York, The Viking Press, Inc., 1962. Print.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

            I can now confirm the existence of extraterrestrial life forms because Tom Wolfe is certainly an alien. The man is all over the map with his skill-sets. A while back, I read and reviewed The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe’s first novel, published in 1987. It is a well-written, provocative piece, but it’s also pretty “normal” in the sense that it doesn’t push the envelope stylistically. Interestingly, Wolfe is credited for creating and popularizing the “push the envelope” phrase in his book The Right Stuff.  Just remember…
            On the other hand, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test* tears up the envelope and throws the pieces up like covfefe. As it belongs to the nonfiction genre, Wolfe describes the rollercoaster life of esteemed author Ken Kesey and his close, cultish circle—the Merry Pranksters. The book retells actual events, following the physical, spiritual, and legal trajectory of Kesey, from when he first became interested in LSD as a mind-expanding drug while writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to when he introduced “acid-tests” across the country, designed to break down mental barriers and achieve ultimate intersubjectivity. Wolfe’s chronicles include the Prankster’s run-ins with famous authors (like Kerouac), Hells Angels, and the Grateful Dead.

            Clearly, this is a unique subject matter, and Wolfe rises to the occasion. The eccentricity of Kesey and his pranksters requires an eccentric voice to match. So, Wolfe incorporates unconventional literary devices that jazz up otherwise objective reporting. Similar to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism, in which the person telling the story is a key participant in the story itself, Wolfe dabbles in New Journalism—a form that blurs the lines of journalism and art. New Journalism still reports facts but from a somewhat subjective perspective.  

            In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe experiments through diction, syntax, and punctuation. He claims, “I have tried not only to tell what the Pranksters did but to re-create the mental atmosphere or subjective reality of it. I don’t think their adventure can be understood without that” (Wolfe 415). And he’s correct, in my opinion. He draws readers into what it feels like to be alongside Kesey while simultaneously explicitly telling us what it is like to be alongside Kesey. He captures and induces a mood, but also relays information.

            For example, Kesey held the notion that “you’re either on the bus or off the bus” (Wolfe, 83). There was a literal bus
and you better get your ass on it or you’ll be left. But Wolfe doesn’t just quote Kesey and then leave readers to figure out that little cracked out fortune cookie. Wolfe shows us what it means to be off the bus, i.e. not attune to the group consciousness. The very words themselves, the rhythm of them strewn together, and the appearance of them on the page, reeks of that on-or-off-the-bus aura.

            It would be difficult for a book about such an unusual cast of characters to be bad because the people are so intrinsically interesting. Kesey, much like historical prophetic figures, had persuasive, articulate, and innovative beliefs about what it’s like to exist and relate in the metaphysical world. His philosophy stemmed from the ideas of Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception. Luckily for you, I’ve reviewed that book and you can read all about his ideas!

            Unfortunately, with Kesey as the main focus, other compelling characters remain underdeveloped. Neal Cassady notoriously inspired the big names of the Beat Generation—a 1950s bohemian literary movement that morphed into the hippie wave of the 1960s via Cassady and Kesey. The fact that we read virtually nothing about Cassady, other than his speed-fueled way of speech and daring driving, means that the content of Kool-Aid could have been better distributed. Less Kesey, more everyone else.

            Speaking of less and more, the mantra *less is more* goes unheeded. The book is too damn long. Wolfe’s method of pulling readers into Kesey’s vision feels a bit like virtual reality goggles. The images are interesting and exciting…to a point. At 415 pages, Kool-Aid’s novelty wears off and ultimately feels too disjointed; thus, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Picador, 1968. Print.