Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ham on Rye

            Every morning, my commute to work is a strategic one. I rush to the very edge of the platform, shoving aside tourists who aimlessly congregate in the center. They’re too busy relishing in the newfound joys of foreign public transportation to realize that the platform is middle-heavy. The person-to-cart ratio is like a parabola—the two opposite ends have less exasperated humans competing for empty seats in their section—it’s quite mathematic. If I’m getting on a subway car, I’m getting a goddamn seat. This is partially because I thoroughly enjoy my subway-reading ritual, and I cannot fully become engrossed in a book if a stranger’s armpit looms five inches away from my face. It is also because I am astoundingly lazy.
            On this particular morning, as I’m embarking on a new novel-journey with Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye*, some brilliant fellow passenger decides it would be acceptable to engage in small talk with me. Am I the only one who thinks that reading a book is the visual equivalent of having headphones in your ears and listening to music? Don’t speak to me. You are being rude while pretending to be nice, which makes you even more ill mannered. The exemption to this rule is if you are a young, good-looking male, asking me pointed questions about the book I’m reading. Or if you are Jake Gyllenhaal and you happen to be sitting next to me, in which case you can do whatever you please. ~Jake Gyllenhaal and the subway~*

            Thankfully, the monster got off on the next stop and I was allowed to begin this beautiful book. I personally prefer pastrami on rye, but to each his own—Bukowski was never one to follow the crowd, after all. His extensive list of literary publications ranges from short poems to full-blown novels, and his semi-autobiographical pieces often portray him in a loner light. This novel is no exception. Using the pseudonym Henry Chinaski, it is an unapologetic account of his blighted path from childhood to young adulthood, growing up in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Fun times! Often the brunt of physical fights and the poster-boy for athletic disappointment, Chinaski is denounced by the majority of his peers as a renegade from the “mainstream”. In fact, he enjoys being alone; when boys do latch themselves on to him, their company is unwelcome and he feels that they embody a weakness that he does not wish to be associated with.  For instance, in response to an English class assignment on “The Value of Friendship”, he writes an essay titled “The Value of No Friendship At All”, which triumphantly receives a “D” (Bukowski, 161). He simply prefers to operate independently, and this brutally honest predilection contributes to the misconstrual of his character.

            The novel centers on violence and bitterness, directed towards both his classmates and family. His father is a truly awful man who mercilessly beats him with a razor strop for things as trivial as missing a blade of grass while mowing. I honestly thought—and actually hoped—that at some point Chinaski would murder his soulless dad. I love noting whom the author dedicates his/her book to and pondering why they are the chosen one(s). In this case, Bukowski says his novel is “for all the fathers”… as in, this book is a how-to for dads who strive to be dicks.

As he ages, Chinaski’s antisocial tendencies amplify and he is consistently hostile in his interactions with others. He has an obsession with possessing a “badness” related to being a man, which results in a douchey, goon-like overcompensation. For example, he tries to get the most demerits at school, drinks himself to oblivion on a regular basis, and arbitrarily picks fights with boys who can clearly beat his ass. God, I am so thankful that I am a woman. Still, the range of the novel is intentional—while he is not the most likeable guy, readers are sympathetic to his rocky past and joyless upbringing.

To cope with life, Chinaski finds solace in reading and writing…and that’s pretty much it. He claims, “Words were things that could make your mind hum. If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you” (Bukowski, 152). Not only were his novels a form of much-needed therapy, he could also look up to the authors for guidance, reassurance, and relatability. He states, “To me, these men who had come into my life from nowhere were my only chance. They were the only voices that spoke to me” (Bukowski, 152). He appreciates books that don’t bullshit (and then he turns around and writes some non-bullshitting books himself).

            Speaking of bullshit, Chinaski thinks people are full of it. Ham on Rye is a coming-of-age novel set in a hardship-ridden time when you wouldn’t want to be any age at all, much less have to navigate potential career-paths and figure out women. Of course he’s angst-y! Chinaski is basically a less annoying version of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, mainly in that he communicates his cynicism in a more focused way. He believes that finding a job is essentially a forced choosing between the lesser of multiple evils. Ruminating on this dilemma, he admits, “I had no interest in anything. I had no idea how I was going to escape… But there was no place to go. Suicide? Jesus Christ, just more work. I felt like sleeping for five years but they wouldn’t let me” (Bukowski, 175). Yet as he delves deeper into this desire for nothingness in a meaningless world, he discovers an obscure sense of superiority. “The life of the sane, average man was dull, worse than death” and he’d rather reason realistically than pretend that everything is fine (Bukowski, 274). Life is not always Chili’s and rainbows, unfortunately, but better to face the facts than act like one of Caulfield’s “phonies”.

            This novel is a good book to throw open when you feel bad about yourself and you don’t want a fake, hearty slap on the back and a bogus encouragement that things will get better. Instead, you want someone to sit down next to you at the bar, hand you a drink, and agree that things suck. Furthermore, Bukoswki keeps things interesting with his acerbic wit. Like when he discusses the draft, saying, “as for me, I had no desire to go to war to protect the life I had or what future I might have…with Hitler around, maybe I’d even get a piece of ass now and then and more than a week allowance” (Bukowski, 236). Nothing like a Hitler joke to really confirm your lack of national pride. Overall, Ham on Rye receives 4 out of 5 camel humps. The content is entertaining and hauntingly genuine, but there are moments when Bukowski’s unrestrained vulgarity is a tad bit overboard for my taste. Every book needs a little boorishness to spice it up, but it burns my mouth a little too much to earn the full five humps.

*Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1982. Print.

*Yakas, Ben. “Photo: Everyone in NYC Has Sat Next To Jake Gyllenhaal On The Subway.” Gothamist: Arts & Entertainment., 21 Nov. 2014. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Now that’s not something you hear every day. Healthcare gurus can move on, but listen up laymen! Humans have something called a blood-brain barrier, which selectively determines what is allowed to pass from our blood to our brain juice. Picture Gandalf wielding a staff and yelling, “YOU CAN NOT PASS” at unsuspecting molecules. Or Gretchen Wieners from Mean Girls snapping, “You can’t sit with us!” Just substitute “sit” with “swim in extracellular fluid”. 

         For the most part, the lymphocytes that comprise our immune system do not have their names on the bouncer’s list and are not allowed into the brain juice; however, on days when the barrier is feeling especially cheerful, he lets a few B-cells and T-cells mosey inside for a routine checkup. For reasons unclear to people more medically competent than me, Susannah Cahalan’s lymphocytes decided to squeeze past the blood-brain barrier without permission and stage a coup d’├ętat. Her immune system handled the situation like an evil dictator who decides that if he’s going to be destroyed, everything else might as well go down in flames alongside him. It created an army of pathologic autoantibodies—proteins which assault the body’s healthy cells. In Susannah’s case, these autoantibodies started to attack her NMDA receptors, which are responsible for overseeing important operations like memory and neuroplasticity. Justifiably angry, her brain became enormously inflamed, and formerly functioning synaptic connections went completely haywire. Her lymphocytes had crashed her brain’s party, lit a bunch of candles to set the mood, and then knocked them all over the place, leaving her brain on fire. Symptoms of this disease include, but are not limited to: paranoia, psychosis, catatonia, violent episodes, seizures, speech difficulties, and a myriad of cognitive impairments. Susannah Cahalan, the author of Brain on Fire*, and survivor of this debilitating disease, exhibited all of the above. Casual.

The autobiography is split into three, equally mesmerizing sections. The first, “Crazy”, details her out-of-the-blue physical and mental deterioration. At one moment, she is an ambitious extrovert, working as a successful reporter for the New York Post. The next, she is plagued by paranoid delusions and holds a tenuous grasp on reality. Multiple feeble diagnoses are thrown at her in an attempt to explain her sudden capriciousness, none of which fit the bill. Her case is extraordinarily inexact and, in her twisted state of mind, she is not the most accommodating patient. She repeatedly tries to escape from the hospital, convinced that the medical personnel are trying to hurt her rather than help. At one point, she punches a nurse in her fury; at another, she randomly rips her IV out of her arm mid-insertion.

The second chapter, “The Clock”, introduces a new doctor—a highly esteemed neurologist who makes her life-saving diagnosis. As Susannah’s mother says, Dr. Najjar is “a real-life Dr. House” (Cahalan, 136). Note: he is not nearly as sexy as Hugh Laurie. While having a name for her disease and being able to react in accordance is certainly a positive thing, it does not eliminate her suffering. To confirm the diagnosis, she has two spinal taps and a brain biopsy (a brain biopsy?!?). To combat the sickness—throw some water on the flames, if you will—she is put on an aggressive treatment regimen involving steroids (with numerous side effects), lengthy infusions to correct her immune deficiencies, and plasmapheresis (a fancy way of saying that her bad plasma is replaced with good plasma). Furthermore, the implications of her illness are largely unclear. Though there is finally a face to her diabolical disease, the journey afterward is quite uncertain. After all, in the spring of 2009, she was only the 217th person to ever be diagnosed with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis (Cahalan, 226). There was not even a Wikipedia page for her disease at the time (Cahalan, 207)! How the hell did anyone learn about it? Dr. Najjar estimates that “90 percent of people suffering from this disease during the time when [she] was treated in 2009 went undiagnosed” (Cahalan, 223). How many thousands of people were incorrectly labeled with a mental illness when the underlying problem was immunological and potentially reversible? She had the luxury of financial resources, familial support, access to exceptional practitioners, and a stroke of timely luck. Just a few years prior to the onset of her symptoms, developments at a lab at the University of Pennsylvania made her definitive diagnosis possible.

The final portion, “In Search of Lost Time”, follows her discharge and subsequent maneuvering of post-hospitalization obstacles. Her cognitive deficits proved especially tough to overcome and she repeatedly scored in the “borderline impaired range” on multiple tests (Cahalan, 191). Susannah was deeply aware of the fact that her previously sharp mental skills were no longer up to par, which exacerbated the humiliation she already felt in social situations due to her altered appearance. You don’t waltz out of the hospital after such a traumatic event looking like a Victoria’s Secret model. For months, her self-worth was shattered. Her disease had been mildly publicized, but few people knew the details of her illness or appreciated the intricacies of her sufferings.

Throughout it all, in spite of the madness, spurts of the old Susannah would sporadically surface, giving her family and boyfriend hope that the real her was shoved down in there somewhere, capable of reemerging. When she was admitted to the hospital following a slew of seizures, her loved ones had no idea what the outcome would be. Yet, they remained incredibly loyal to her in her time of need. Her boyfriend, Stephen, is the man. I mean, they had only been dating for four months before her psychotic breakdown erupted.  During the recovery process, Susannah questioned why he had so solidly stood by her side. His response? “Because I love you, and I wanted to, and I knew you were in there” (Cahalan, 184). Someone get Ryan Gosling in here and let’s make a Nicholas Spark film…this is too good (I later discovered that a theatrical adaptation is in fact underway, produced by Charlize Theron and starring Dakota Fanning)*. Honorable mention to her mom and dad, who were also awesome at coping with the situation at hand.

Susannah recuperated from her tragic, and nearly deadly, circumstance like a total rockstar. It is unfathomable to me how she managed to move from: mysterious psychotic affliction >>> similarly cryptic diagnosis that completely wrecked her cognitive abilities >>> best-selling author. My first year of college, I was in and out of the university hospital for a couple of months with a kidney problem that left doctors puzzled. At one point, I was told I had lupus; at another, I was informed that I would need to be put on dialysis. Thankfully, I ended up healthily strutting out of there with a dual middle finger to my kidneys for succumbing to some rando virus. It was terrifying at the time, but it has become the brunt of many kidney donation jokes and I like having those in my comedic arsenal. Sure, I was upset at the prospect of lupus ruining my ability to tan, but I was not losing my goddamn mind. Susannah was on the verge of being institutionalized. Everything was falling apart for her! “The mind is like a circuit of Christmas tree lights. When the brain works well, all of the lights twinkle brilliantly, and it’s adaptable enough that, often, even if one bulb goes out, the rest will still shine on. But depending on where the damage is, sometimes that one blown bulb can make the whole strand go dark” (Cahalan, 83).

She also happens to be a phenomenal writer. Not entirely surprising coming from an accomplished journalist, but still. I was beyond impressed with her harrowing recollection; she articulated her emotional rollercoaster in a manner that made me feel like I had experienced it with her. Furthermore, she is stunningly adept at translating complex neurological processes in digestible terms. You can tell she did her research. She is the poster-girl for advocating an idea that I have argued for for quite some time—the necessity of cooperation among psychological, neurological, and immunological sciences (Cahalan, 225). You can have all sorts of capable doctors assisting with your case, but the real profundity occurs when different fields are working in unison.

Between her riveting story and her captivating writing, I give this autobiography 5 out of 5 camel humps. Tell me you don’t like this book and I will tell you that you don’t have a heart. Her struggle is incredibly moving, the response to her aberrant brain is humbling, and her ability to rise above such a helpless situation brings me joy. The book was so spellbinding that I finished all 250 pages of it in less than 29 hours. This is a testament to the author’s allure as well as the fact that I clearly have no life. I gobbled this book up like I did with Gone Girl, except this time I was actually learning about something valuable rather than eagerly reading about a malevolent bitch. I recommend this to anyone and everyone who has a soul and wants to learn a little bit about how your brain can screw you over.

*Cahalan, Susannah. Brain on Fire. New York: Free Press, 2012. Print.

*“Brain on Fire.” The Internet Movie Database., Inc, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. <>.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Tipping Point

     Malcolm Gladwell landed on my (obviously incredibly astute) radar a little over a year ago, when I noticed a trend in minimalist book covers. I decided to get in on the action and read Outliers—a book that induced my distrust of Korean airliners with its impressively memorable anecdotes. This non-fiction “Story of Success” is only one of Gladwell’s numerous bestsellers. His five books mostly revolve around principles of social psychology, offering a fusion of research and entertaining stories. My biggest take-away however, was the author’s phenomenal hair. 

I couldn’t resist trying another one of his books—The Tipping Point*. With a look like that, I thought, “alright, how about just the tip”. Instead, I ended up reading the whole thing.

     Tipping point: “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire” (Gladwell, back cover). Tipping points are striking instances in which everything changes. For instance, in Baltimore (go Ravens!), the number of infants born with syphilis increased by 500 percent from 1995 to 1996 (Gladwell, 15). That’s not casual. Something happened to stimulate that unprecedented boost. Gladwell argues that sociological trends can follow epidemic-like patterns similar to that of viruses. He introduces three agents that are instrumental in facilitating a social “outbreak”:
  • People! But only certain kinds. The “Law of the Few” holds that “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts” (Gladwell, 33).  This notion is akin to the economic “80/20 principle” whereby “80 percent of the ‘work’ will be done by 20 percent of the participants. [For example], in most societies, 20 percent of criminals commit 80 percent of crimes” (Gladwell, 19). This elite 20 percent is critical in the spread of information to the rest of us peasants. It is made up of three kinds of characters:
a) Connectors. Incredibly extroverted people with an extensive network. Someone with a gregarious personality capable of confidently linking people from different social spheres.

b) Mavens. I know this sounds like a tribe from Game of Thrones, but it’s not. Mavens are information experts; they accumulate knowledge and share that knowledge with others. Non-mavens turn to them for answers because they are always in the know.

c)  Salesmen. Or women! These people possess the power of persuasion. They are unconsciously charismatic and expressive to the point that they can convince us one way or another via nonverbal cues.

These personality types are not mutually exclusive and they can have an enormous effect when combined. They reduce the complexities of the world by making information-processing more manageable. As a result, society at large tends to follow their advice. What they like, everyone ends up liking. Can I get a connector-maven-salesperson up in here to start advocating this blog so that it blows up and I become rich and famous?
  • Stickiness. Formerly, Gladwell touched on the characteristics attributable to those responsible for the spread of an idea. Now, he focuses on the features of the idea itself: it must be memorable. It has to stick to become popular enough to “tip”. In this chapter, he interestingly discusses the fruitlessness of certain advertising techniques and dives into the background behind successful educational programs such as Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues. (Remember when Steve left the show and all these rumors about a heroin overdose and him being this uncontrollable Satanist surfaced and all your childhood hopes and dreams vanished? No? Just me? That’s fine. Turns out he’s totally straight, he was just tired of the show after six years. But then they replaced him with Joe and Joe was mad lame).  
  • Context. This chapter refers to the environment in which ideas proliferate. Gladwell employs the “broken windows theory”, a criminological belief that “crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread” (Gladwell 141). Nobody likes a broken window, guys. That’s how you get cold. Basically, according to this view, the little things matter. New York City in the 1980s was completely crime-ridden, averaging “well over 2,000 murders and 600,000 serious felonies a year” (Gladwell, 135). This is not the New York City that I know; hell, I traipse around the streets at 4 AM like I own the place. And that’s because in the 90’s, the situation tipped. Crime rates suddenly shot down at an extraordinary pace. Gladwell credits this transformation to increased efforts in addressing seemingly insignificant crimes like fare-beating and vandalism. The new police chief in charge cracked down on graffiti, actively stripping subway cars of markings even right after they occurred. He also made it less cumbersome to arrest those who tried to jump the turnstiles and created an environment in which it was nearly impossible for someone to get away with the act. Except that’s not entirely true, because I’ve done it once. According to Gladwell, these slight changes in context actually had a wide-scale effect on unlawful activity. Would-be criminals were no longer surrounded by disorder, so they did not behave in a disorderly fashion. Gladwell encourages readers to reframe the way we look at the world; what may be most effective is not always the most intuitive. This conception of crime stems from an atypical line of thinking. It implies that criminals are not criminals because they have innate illicit tendencies; rather, their environment nudges them to engage in illegal behavior. It is a perspective that counters a defeatist, prevention-laden approach; instead of honing in on criminals themselves, we can fix more minute problems within the environment. Food for thought.
The book as a whole serves as a guide on how to focus your efforts more productively to create change. You can manipulate the connectors/mavens/salespeople, strive to mold a particularly “sticky” message, modify the context in which your message is received, or all of the above. “What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus” (Gladwell, 258). Gladwell leaves us with this grandiose suggestion, but does the data back it up? It is hard to say. Critics protest his fairly undeniable oversimplifications as well as his particular usage of one-sided stats and ad hoc anecdotes which bias his message. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for literature (duh), but I am also thankful for the critical method that readers can utilize to challenge authors and generate an ongoing conversation.

Personally, I do not necessarily place a ton of weight in his conclusions; yet, he raises intriguing solutions to problems that I think are worth investigating. For instance, he proposes a laudably pragmatic approach to combating cigarette addiction—a pitch that, as a head and neck cancer researcher, I find especially worthy of further assessment. He also incidentally provides readers with the history behind cool concepts that I have taken for granted up until now, like the meaning behind “six degrees of separation”. Furthermore, Gladwell is a careful writer who emphasizes clarity. The book has a straightforward structure that clearly explains each factor involved in a tipping point and then ties them all together to really drive his message home. Taking both the negative and positive factors into account, I give The Tipping Point 3 out of 5 camel humps. There is always value in reading something that encourages you to look at the world in a different way, but it is heedful to take his ideas with a grain of salt.

*Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. New York: Back Bay Books, 2000. Print.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Not That Kind of Girl

 If you watch HBO’s Girls, you see Lena Dunham naked approximately 5,000 times. If you read Not That Kind of Girl*, you see Lena Dunham emotionally naked roughly the same amount. I initially opened the book and thought wow…an open book! I was not astounded by my ability to literally open up the pages (although I had just painted my nails, so that's kind of impressive); I was amazed with the candidness it contained. Lena concedes that she does not possess a wealth of wisdom, yet maintains that she might still have something to offer. She tells readers, “If I can take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine will have been worthwhile” (Dunham, xvii). She comedically shares her insecurities so that we might feel less insecure ourselves. That way she can beat anyone to the punch when it comes to making fun of herself!

Even if you do not enjoy her quirky mannerisms or value her sense of humor, you can appreciate this woman’s incredible accomplishments. After all, she started writing/directing/acting in an award-winning television show at age 25! I can’t decide if that makes me feel inspired or if it makes me feel like complete shit. Oftentimes when I find myself watching sports (like one of those cool girls, ya know) I’ll experience an unwelcome epiphany. In between my douchey, unsubtle attempts at knowledge-dropping (“they’ve made a lot of points in the paint tonight”, “that was an incredible pick-six”, “didn’t ____ used to play for ___”, etc.) I’ll think about the players’ absurd degree of talent at such a young age and become disillusioned. But athletic skill is one thing; creative skill is entirely another. A famous football player might have a streak of bad games, but Lena is completely and totally exposing her artistic prowess, allowing the world to judge her creativity—a talent that is much more abstract and arguably more daunting to display. Furthermore, her impetus to write has an existential undertone that I obviously eat right up. She explains to a fellow writer, ‘“In our work, we create a better or clearer universe…or at least one that makes more sense. A place we’d want to live, or can at least understand’” (Dunham, 135). You sense that producing this book is therapeutic for her and you feel blessed for having been ushered into that process beside her. #Blessed.

Her quest for self-actualization is certainly not drama-free. She is theatrical throughout even the most pedantic moments of daily life, which provides her plenty of material to publicly disclose. The memoir book is divided into five chapters, each containing a conglomeration of lists and autobiographical essays. The first section, “Love & Sex” discusses her desperate attempts at losing her virginity, her awkward flirtatious intimations, and her unfortunate penchant for jerks. “Body” details her difficulties dieting (ex: “How to Remain 10 Lbs. Overweight Eating Only Healthy Food”) and her reasoning behind willingly performing her own sex scenes on Girls—“I do it because my boss tells me to. And my boss is me” (Dunham, 105). “Friendship” follows her relationship with her sister and the reasons why she loves New York-- “I like your city… I just like mine better” (Dunham, 157). “Work” relays the sexism she experiences in Hollywood and reminds readers that you can have legitimate aspirations without being ambitious all the freaking time (Can I get an Amen?). Lastly, “Big Picture” meditates on death and therapy and features one of my favorite chapters concerning her hypochondriatic tendencies. There have been complaints from some critics that the book’s structure hops around in an overly-haphazard way. I disagree; each chapter is entertaining in and of itself and I do not think the book was intended to be read as a chronological narrative.

To be honest, I can’t always relate to Lena. We have different (though not clashing) views on love, sex, body image, etc. But Lena makes you relate to her. She fondly forces you to see life through her exuberant eyes and it is difficult to not be transformed by her frankness. Her book—and her show for that matter—make me feel empowered. They suggest that you and I can fulfill our dreams by just being ourselves and staying true to said self. Granted, unlike her, I don’t come from a family of successful artists with hella connections. My dad owns a couple of Hallmarks so I think I could potentially pull a Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer and get into the greeting card biz. I also think it is very cool that she has the clout to openly reveal embarrassing stories about people in her life. For God’s sake, she chronicles her past sexual encounters in graphic detail and she currently has a serious boyfriend—the lead singer of the band fun, in fact. He is probably like “what the hell is this?” while everyone else is like “oh, that’s just classic Lena, for ya!” She can get away with so much because she’s funny and bright. I hope that someday I can mortify my loved ones via a similarly public platform. That being said, beware of transgressing me in any way. I will morph into the Taylor Swift of writing and talk all kinds of shit about you.  

In summary, Lena Dunham is on point with her intelligent, snarky swagger and her memoir rightfully earns 4 out of 5 camel humps. As with most comedic books, I do not give out a full 5 humps because it is not a “must-read”--though it is very engaging nonetheless. It is not always lol-funny but it is such a joy to read in that it relieves the burden of complicated life issues without denying their significance. At one point, I was reading it on the bus from DC to NY and I genuinely wanted the ride to be longer so that I could read more. That is a true testament to her ability to entertain because my desire was ridiculous. Buses are awful and I was sitting next to a smelly male who sifted uncomfortably in his seat all too frequently and monopolized the shared armrest. Lena is a lively soul with a good-natured humor that is comically self-deprecating without completely undermining her pride. It would be a mistake to not read this book and miss out on her wit. And because I'm apparently very into memes these days, I will leave you with this:

*Dunham, Lena. Not That Kind of Girl. New York: Random House, 2014. Print.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Marriage Plot

Dear Mr. Eugenides,

I’m writing to confirm that The Marriage Plot* is a joke. It is a joke, right? One can only assume that you exhausted all of your creative juices on Middlesex and simply had nothing left to give. I am honestly so taken aback by how poorly executed this novel is that I’m considering tweaking my once steadfast anti-censorship views. The contrast between this trite storyline and the creativity of your previous novel (Middlesex review) is shocking, to say the least. Mid-read, I felt like I was watching the film From Dusk Till Dawn. Tarantino is a main character, so you expect great things…up until everyone transforms into low-budget vampires and you realize that you can never un-see the unnecessarily ridiculous shit you just saw. Likewise, I can never recover the time I spent reading this 400 page monstrosity. Be forewarned, however, that I will be suing you for the $4.00 I used to buy the book on Amazon.

You might be wondering why I feel so passionately disappointed by this novel. Simply put: the story is not worth telling. There are three main characters, trapped in a sickening love triangle. Madeline, the woman of mutual desire, is incredibly selfish and so boring that I actually feel burdened when her name is mentioned. To clarify, she is not boring because she is a spoiled, well-educated rich girl. She is boring because she is simple-minded…and she happens to also be a spoiled, well-educated rich girl. For instance, she has a self-imposed rule to never date guys who go to shrinks because she can’t really wrap her mind around the idea of having emotional issues that run deeper than “why hasn’t he called me back yet?” Mr. Eugenides, I’m not sure how much you know about women, but I can assure you that we’re not all sitting in our beds at night, plucking at flower petals and sullenly murmuring, “he loves me… he loves me not”. Instead, I’m currently eating dry Cinnamon Toast Crunch out of the box, listening to Drake talk about how he came through on his Wu-Tang, and trying to figure out why my “I mustache you what time it is” clock won’t properly display the time. I may not be an entirely complex person 24/7 but I am also not pining over men every second of every day and it’s frankly embarrassing that you would reduce the main character to such constant triviality. I understand that these people exist but I sure as hell don’t want to read about them.

Leonard, Madeline’s boyfriend, is a slight step up. We do not find out about his manic-depression until pretty late in the game. This might have been a half-hearted attempt at implying the insidious nature of the disease; instead, it made me feel like I had been lied to and led astray by you for no real, useful purpose. Leonard is a product of neglect and abuse; the dysfunctionality which defines his childhood becomes such a normalcy for him that it warps his ability to maintain romantic relationships later on. He feels like he is undeserving when things are going well in his love-life; these lowered expectations, coupled with his mental illness, effectively sabotage anything good he has going for him. I rooted for him until he pulled a dramatic, immature stunt at the end. I thought we were dealing with young adults in their mid-twenties, not ten year olds. At this point, I would much prefer a love story about ten year olds—specifically one involving Stan Marsh and Wendy Testaburger.

Lastly, there is Mitchell, the distant admirer of Madeline and direct foil of Leonard. After graduation, he travels through Europe and Asia, loosely as a spiritual pursuit. I respect that he actively seeks non-superficial pleasures as he tries to determine if truth can be found through the heart and not just the mind. Mainly, though, I am confused by him. His thoughts directly contradict his actions; while this is a fairly common and realistic scenario, it is unsuccessfully implemented as a cogent train of thought in your writing. The contradiction strikes me as less of a practical portrayal and more of an incomprehensible series of events. Read: why the hell are you doing what you’re doing, Mitchell? Stop.

Why would you choose such uninteresting characters for the crux of your novel?! I rue all of the wasted potential. You begin the book with the following quote from Francois de La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about” (Eugenides, 1). This is a good start; you really had something here that you could run with. It challenges readers—is love merely a social construction? Is love just a mental state that can be manipulated as such? Can you overcome predictability and express a purely original thought? Is newness even a possibility in this day and age? Are we capable of loving people in ways that don’t feel like we’re acting from a script?

I anticipated that this love triangle would be different from the “marriage plots” of previous literature, and I sincerely hoped that it would strike me as unique and unformulaic. I imagined a slew of questions that the novel could address—what defines love? Is it the same for everyone? Can unconventional pathways to love survive and thrive? Your novel, to my dismay, gave very half-ass answers. The book is overwrought with gender tensions, but the only remotely compelling romantic setback centers on Leonard’s bipolar disorder. Leonard’s understanding of love is that it can transcend all differences. Accordingly, he wonders why he and Madeline cannot seem to connect despite his disease. On the other hand, Madeline feels that Leonard is unknowable and thus unlovable unless she immerses herself in his pain and truly understands what he is going through. This sobering conclusion makes her question whether their relationship is strong enough to withstand the trials and tribulations that make Leonard who he is. In this isolated situation, I might think that Madeline is a loving, considerate person; however, taking into account the entire novel, her reluctance reinforces her crippling dependency on men. She is only capable of defining herself in relation to her significant other at the time. I thought I was going to get something refreshing from this novel. Alternatively, I am shown how women’s slavery to domesticity and lack of financial independence in the Victorian era translates to the modern day in your mind: emotional dependency. This is how I feel about people like Madeline:

As a whole, I am thankful that I read this insofar as I can (hopefully) prevent others from making the same mistake. A fellow Goodreads reviewer properly renamed the novel The Marriage Plop. Your characters are flawed in ways that typically make for appealing literature. Unfortunately, they had very little actual substance and I grew weary of crossing my fingers that each subsequent chapter would offer me deeper insights. Usually, even if I am uninterested and uninvested in a book’s plot, I can still appreciate the writing style. Not in this case. I give this book 1 out of 5 camel humps because the fact of the matter is that I would not recommend this to anyone. The 2-hump ratings I have given on the blog thus far (Crime and Punishment review and Heart of Darkness review) acknowledge the respective author’s impressive prose and the cultural relevance of a *classic*. This book is bereft of all such benefits. Its only redeeming quality is its infrequent racy sex scenes. If I’m looking to blush on the subway, there are millions of other methods I would prefer.


A Regretful Reader

*Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Marriage Plot. New York: Picador, 2011. Print.