Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Death with Interruptions

            “The following day, no one died” (Saramago, 1). This matter-of-fact statement is the first sentence of Saramago’s exquisitely translated Portuguese novel, Death with Interruptions*. The New Year ushers in an unprecedented phenomenon for a single, unidentified country. Who needs Dick Clark or Ryan Seacrest celebrating your unattainable resolutions when you have something like eternal life to dissuade you from starting a diet?
            While the prospect of immortality sounds initially alluring, the pragmatic implications quickly extinguish the citizens’ enthusiasm.  What does this mean for religion? It calls into question centuries of resurrection-related dogma and challenges the existence of God as well as His range of omnipotence. What does this mean politically? How do government officials assuage the masses and how do they respond to an uncontrollable new demographic? What does this mean for the economy? In what ways will long-established industries like health-care, funeral homes, and insurance companies reorient themselves now that their public services are practically obsolete?

            There are also philosophical repercussions—will lawlessness ensue now that death cannot be held up as a deterrent? The sudden disappearance of death welcomes a contentious debate about the nature of death herself (death has historically been personified as a female and Saramago continues with this gendered pronoun). Death has forgone her duties in this country alone and while humans still stand, plants and animals continue to perish; thus, many people logically deduce that there is hierarchy of deaths separated by taxonomic rank, nation, etc. This visceral reaction of the humans in the story to try and understand and define concepts that lay beyond their grasp and are perhaps unknowable is one of the more interesting threads of the novel. The book is rife with references to what is seemingly “natural”/“normal”, and it upholds a steady unease that humanity bears whenever the order and structure of society is twisted. We eventually adjust, but we have a hard time rollin with the punches.

            In their efforts to adapt, the country’s inhabitants get creative. Some defy death by transporting their suffering, catatonic friends and family across the border, where they instantly decease. Noticing an opportunity to exploit, a body-smuggling organization called the “maphia” (a very basic mafia, indeed) surfaces. Their actions open up a can of morality worms and a controversial dispute erupts over whether the process is murder, suicide, or something else altogether. But, as the narrator reminds us, this is what happens “when pragmatism takes up the baton and conducts the orchestra, ignoring what is written in the score” (Saramago, 59).

            The musical motif remains consistent throughout the novel, as the second half depicts death taking on a human form and, much to her surprise, falling in love with a cellist. Once her deprivation-of-death experiment takes its toll, she dabbles in other tweaks of the age-old system, one of which leads her to an unexpected obstacle. The cellist, through seemingly no volition of his own, refuses to die. Death is flabbergasted! She does not know what to do because she has been in the business for so long that she can’t even remember who put her in charge; therefore, she has no one to consult. Instead, she takes matters into her own hands, bringing personification to a whole new level in order to personally analyze her preposterous death-defyer. Death portrayed as a sentient being allows Saramago’s skills to really shine. She is fallible to some degree and she expresses feelings of restlessness, intrigue, exhaustion, etc. Saramago invites us to think differently about a typically chilling subject. He penetrates our reflections on a morbid subject without being piercing; the subject is confronted creatively enough to not feel too depressing and as such, he lends something very beautiful to the macabre.
            Even more inventively, the writing style reads like a well-organized stream of consciousness. Death is interrupted but Saramago’s sentences certainly are not. One paragraph can run on for pages and a single sentence can often contain a lengthy dialogue. A conversation within an individual sentence is divided by capitalization; one person speaks for a bit and instead of an indention or period, the other person continues with a capital letter marking the beginning of their speech. It took a while to get used to and it is the chief source of complaint among those who do not like the novel; however, I think it is a refreshing take on the traditional grammatical system. His narrative is out of the box, why can’t his syntax be aberrant as well?
            Additionally, he develops a communal experience between the narrator and the reader, often using the word “we”. The narrator openly admits to wanting the reader to understand the plotline, so he apologizes when he feels he described something imperfectly and he always strives to go back and explain any narrative holes. It’s okay narrator, I forgive you—you did a good job.

            Between the ingenious tale, his unique linguistic structure, and his congenial narrator, Saramago proves he is worthy of the Nobel Prize of Literature that he received. He can sing “Started from the Bottom” and mean it much more than Drake can (please check out that ridiculous music video which makes me doubt my affinity for Drizzy). Saramago was born to a peasant family in 1922 and was forced to drop out of his school at age twelve. When he died, 20,000 people attended his funeral—a bold testament to his impactful writing as well as his influence in political and philosophical circles. Perhaps he writes the way he does because the basic rules of grammar were covered in seventh grade? Most importantly, “Saramago” translates to “wild radish” in Portuguese, which sounds like something Gwenyth Paltrow would name her offspring. Also, radishes—like all vegetables—are gross.

            Overall, this book was a delight to read. Not only did it provide a thought-provoking set of perspectives (the relationship of people to death and the relationship of death to people), it’s also pretty funny! Death has some comical conversations with her co-worker scythe and Saramago inputs plenty of irony and relevant puns that are slightly better than these: 

Furthermore, I enjoyed his expert employment of the symphonic metaphor. I spotted several parallels between the music that the cellist plays and life’s own orchestra. For instance, death enjoyed her cellist’s tune “because of its tragic brevity, its desperate intensity, and also because of that final cord, like an ellipses left hanging in the air, something yet to be said” (Saramago, 194). And if you find yourself getting bogged up in the impossibility of the story, just remember, “all the many things that have been said about god and about death are nothing but stories, and this is just another one”, so add it to the shelf (Saramago, 162). In sum, I give the book 4 out of 5 camel humps.  It is a novel absolutely worth reading and a book worth thinking about, but it did not stir me to a full five humps.

*Saramago, José. Death with Interruptions. New York: Mariner Books, 2009. Print.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On the Road

I’m supposed to think this is like God’s gift to prose, right? Well honestly, I’m left a little wanting. Ironically, two major themes of On the Road*—restlessness and dissatisfaction with what is in front of you—were two emotions I experienced mid-read. Now that I’ve really set this novel up for death-by-review, I’ll outline its plot, its shortcomings, and even some potential redeeming factors.

Similar to roman à clef novels I’ve reviewed in the past (The Things They Carried, The Rum Diary, Ham On Rye, and The Bell Jar), the characters in this story correspond to Kerouac’s real-life friends and the narrative reveals their actual adventures on the road from 1947 to 1950. The book follows Sal Paradise (Kerouac) as he embarks on several journeys to the West and eventually Mexico, making notable pit stops in San Francisco, Denver, and Chicago. He is regularly accompanied by Dean Moriarty—the fictional version of Neal Cassady. Other memorable authors such as Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson also immortalize Cassady’s craziness in their own works. Clearly, I need to find better, cooler, famous author friends.

The original manuscript was written on a thirty-foot long scroll—probably the dopest thing about this book. It currently resides in the home of the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, right next to a briefcase full of pills and a voodoo doll of Tom Brady holding an under-inflated football. It epitomizes the “Beat Generation”, a group of post-World War II creative types that focused on alternative, counter-culture lifestyles, often invoking elements considered conventionally obscene. “Beat” connotes the state of being weary/worn down as well as a musical beat (specifically jazz in this novel). So, why are these guys so tired? Should they perhaps take a nap? In reality, it runs slightly deeper than something a 40 minute snooze can fix (you’re ridiculous if you’re capable of limiting yourself to 20-minutes). These men (and women) were jaded from war and discontented with the predictability of their dreary day-to-day duties. By confronting such an endemic problem that plagued an entire generation, the novel seems to be historic and is hailed as such; however, there are many novels that employ these themes/address these issues, and I feel that this particular one receives undue respect. Why? I’ll tell you!
  • It’s about a 25-year-old man who lives off the land and proclaims the mantra, “there was nowhere to go but everywhere” (Kerouac, 26). Certainly a fun topic in theory, but a lot of it is really kind of boring. Oh, he hitchhikes here and doesn’t have any money? Oh, he hitchhikes there and still doesn’t have any money? Look, a pretty squirrel! In my opinion, it was twice as long as it needed to be. Homeboy travels out west, does a bunch of drugs, has a lot of sex, and drinks a ton of booze. He goes back to New York for a hot second until he returns to the west and does it all again. I really thought I had misplaced my (bombass, homemade) bookmark and was accidentally re-reading the same passage. As a whole, it gives you the initial rush of impulsive behavior but once that rush dies out, it’s left seeming long-winded.
  • And that is partially because it reads like ramblings. It’s written as a continuous, improvisational letter. This style is experimental, and I can respect that; however, the instability of the characters and the frenetic nature of their conversations often render the text incoherent. In reference to a short-lived love interest, Sal Paradise admits, “Lucille would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop” (Kerouac, 126). Well, I understand you about as much as Lucille does. Similarly, Dean frequently gets really geeked up about a far-fetched plan or an idea and then engages in a lengthy passionate tirade that sounds like nonsense. Sure, he’s an engaging character, but his high-intensity can be overwhelming at times.
  • So we’ve got a lot of writing, mostly jumbled…but does the novel effectively communicate something of value (or really anything, even if not of value) at all? Short answer: nope. It lacks substance. The novel exalts a lifestyle of impunity and indulgence as a means to fully experience life. Sal Paradise exudes a spirit of awe and appreciation of what America and the world have to offer, which is a beautiful and admirable way of approaching existence. This is precisely what I loved about Into the Wild, both the book and the film. Alexander Supertramp’s explorations were imbued with soul-searching philosophies and he reached a meaningful conclusion at the end of his voyage, even if it was sorrowful. On the Road made similar attempts but in a less articulate, much more licentious manner. They are “mad drunken Americans in the mighty land” who half-heartedly chase after “IT” (Kerouac, 55). And I’m not talking about this guy...
    They rightfully recognize that there is more to this world than the traditional schedule of a standard-mold workingman; but they more so just screw around all the time and then pretend it’s part of a wider, cosmic significance. Don’t get me wrong, I like to get my young-wild-and-free on, but I’m also not delusional enough to think that it’s the answer to all of earth’s problems. At least when Paul Kemp (Hunter S. Thompson) drinks himself to oblivion in The Rum Diary, he recognizes the inherent fruitlessness of his debauchery. It was as if Kerouac wanted to try and talk about IT (a truth larger than the self, a less ephemeral consciousness) but instead just partied with no self-awareness. Call hedonism what it is.
  • Lastly, the novel, unfortunately, conflates moral accountability with everyday duties. Kerouac thinks that Dean is the absolute shit. He gives the character an undeserved saintly dimension and worships his nonchalance. The problem is that Kerouac misconstrues the benefits of a responsibility-free life, to the detriment of several people. That’s right, I’m calling out an author who has his name on countless “100-books-to-read-before-you-croak” lists. Living responsibility-free (no job, no permanent home, no one to answer to) does not negate all of your moral responsibilities. Quitting my job is one thing, punching my boss just because I feel like it is another. There are other people in Sal and Dean’s life whose lives matter too, and they shouldn’t be sloughed aside just because the men want to live brazenly. That’s some adolescent bullshit.  When describing Dean, the “Holy Goof”, Kerouac says, “bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness—everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being” (Kerouac, 194). He’s explicitly saying that Dean foregoes a sense of morality in order to feel awesome and do whatever the hell he wants. Now, maybe this is some sort of commentary on the deconstruction of human-imposed morals, but that seems a little too Kantian for Kerouac’s capabilities (let’s gooooo). To reiterate, I’m not saying that their road-filled escapades are not freeing and rewarding. But try and avoid this: “with one illegitimate child in the West somewhere, Dean then had four little ones and not a cent, and was all troubles and ecstasy and speed as ever” (Kerouac, 248).  It’s all fun and games until you knock up a bunch of women all over the country and leave them to fend for themselves once you get bored. Literally getting turnt up about this.

Now that we have established that the novel is overly hyped and unduly praised, I have a confession to make. Honestly, I enjoyed the book significantly more retrospectively than when I was actively reading it. I finished this novel this past November and recently revisited it for a book discussion that my friend Aline and I have from time to time. When I reopened it, it took on a romanticized quality. Kerouac’s travels took place so long ago, when he could get away with saying, “I had three hundred and sixty-five miles yet to hitchhike to New York, and a dime in my pocket” without having to seriously worry about getting his head cut off by a serial killer (Kerouac, 104). These elusive concepts (inexpensive, easily accessible divorce just because you woke up and felt like it—no binding alimony or child support, paying for a three-cent meal, etc.) are alluring to us. The impossibility of it all seems almost utopic. This kind of gallivanting around could never happen now to that extreme and frankly, that makes me a little jealous. Furthermore, taken piece-meal, there are plenty of solid lines. Again, it’s mostly ramblings, but I was able to underline some real gems. One of my personal favorites, and the inspiration behind many successful diets, I hope: “I ate another apple pie and ice cream; that’s practically all I ate all the way across the country, I knew it was nutritious and it was delicious, of course” (Kerouac, 14). I would be okay with exclusively eating rotisserie chicken and nerds.

In truth, unlike many reviewers who accept the novel’s shallowness as an answer to the implicit promise of a great discovery on the open road, I expected more. It did not change my life; I’m glad that I read it insofar as now I can make fun of it from an informed perspective. Its scattered stylistically impressive sentences are enjoyable, but not enough to compensate for the poorly attempted profundity. I think that I would probably love Kerouac’s poetry—his yearning for truth, love, and life would likely read more digestibly in a condensed form. But this is a review of his novel, and I give it a resounding 2 out of 5 camel humps. If you want a more effective and satisfying means of escaping mundanity and feeling a touch of freedom, I recommend jamming out to “Coffee” by Sylvan Esso -- click to have a really good timeAnd just FYI, they are playing at Bonnaroo this year, so I’ll use this as a shameless plug to encourage people to join me at Roo so that we meet our group camping quota (I gotchu, Ryan Howick).

*Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: the Penguin Group, 1957. Print.