Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Brothers Karamazov

               Mark Twain once said, “ a classic is a book people praise and don’t read”. Or at least that’s what someone’s Tumblr said that he said, and I found it striking enough to note. To some degree, I’ve sought to change that trend with this blog. Of course, I wouldn’t consider books like Gone Girl to belong in the classical cannon; but, at this point in the game, I hope that I’ve piqued someone’s interest towards a novel they wouldn’t normally be drawn to, or exposed someone to literature that they’d formerly never thought twice about. Personally, I knew that Fyodor Dostoevsky was praised, but I hadn’t read any of his works until my inaugural post. Feeling let down, I decided to give the author another shot. As if holding a 936 page book in my hand isn’t daunting enough, The Brothers Karamazov* is fraught with Russian names that often confuse and deter me. I mean, there is a road named Mikhailovskaya St. 

Likewise, I am sometimes put off by both era-related and cultural differences. The characters wield a very emotional affect—borderline hysterical. They make frenzied decisions, exhibit rash thinking, and communicate overexcitedly. The manner in which they speak and interact can come across needlessly exaggerated to a generally chill American of the 21st century. However, having already experienced these annoyances with Crime and Punishment, I am now able to sit back, relax, and enjoy his distinctive style. It’s almost as if I had to warm up to his writing until I was fully able to indulge in the drama of the narrative. This is all to say that if you don’t like some of Dostoevsky’s work, that does not inevitably rule out any chance of you enjoying this book so ~keep reading~.

               What I’ve quickly learned is that Dostoevsky loves a good moral dilemma. Frequently, he embeds these ethical conflicts within a crime and then studies the nature of the criminal and the people who relate to him. I can sympathize with criminal psychology. I had never stolen anything until I studied abroad in Australia. It was obviously not the ideal time to begin my petty criminal antics--when I was in another country and the consequences were much more complicated—but I was dirt poor. Of course, I budgeted for boxed wine and cabs home from the club (it was Australia, after all) and then I didn't really have anything leftover for things like…food. In Oz, I stole the following items: a kangaroo back scratcher (you weren’t expecting that, were you?), a bottle of conditioner, and a box of Nerds. Of note, I stupidly stole the Nerds at a grocery store even though it was by far the cheapest item in my cart. Also of note, nerds are delicious. At one point, I tried to steal this Costco-sized bag of shredded cheddar cheese but then got too flustered. Probably because I was so stoked at the prospect of owning that much cheese. Can I be arrested for admitting all of this?

               Anyway, Dostoevsky (unfortunately) did not write about the moral repercussions of stealing cheese. This particular crime has to do with a family of three brothers- Ivan, Dmitry, and Alyosha as well as their vulgar father, Fyodor. Yes, Dostoevsky named the most obnoxious character after himself. The wrongdoing (which I will not divulge) occurs as a result of a twisted, entangling love triangle (or rather, love pentagon). While romantic problems are sure to afflict many unsuspecting men, this family is not your typical one. They are inextricably plagued by “the Karamazov drive”—one that is “earthy, frantic, and primitive” (Dostoevsky, 264). Each member, in his own individual way, has such a rich appetite for life and experiences that he can be easily propelled into the most shameful circumstances. I understand—I really like unlimited mimosa brunches even though I know it leads to unproductive afternoons and general debauchery. I’m just *experiencing life*.

               While my brunch escapades (probably) do not lead to any larger, existential meaning, I do believe that the Karamazov family serves as a microcosm for Russia as a whole. At this stage in Dostoevsky’s writing—this is his final novel preceding his death in 1881—he is realllllly worried about the state of Russia and his concerns seep through the actions and words of his characters (see Crime and Punishment for more details about his life as a whole). He notes that Russia is losing its identity as a fruitful nation, namely as a consequence of its trend towards godlessness. Indeed, all of Dostoevsky’s books are laced with spiritual implications. Just as the Karamazovs relentlessly pursue the extreme poles that the world has to offer (good—evil, spiritual—heathen), the people of Russia are dangerously toying with atheism. For Dostoevsky, a full step in that direction would go so far as to undermine humanity; he believed, towards the end of his life, that mankind is at its best when it acknowledges and incorporates metaphysical—Godly—aspects. Truthfully, “God torments all of Dostoevsky’s heroes, all of them decide the question of God’s existence; their fate is wholly determined by the religious consciousness” (Dostoevsky, xiii).

               One of the most significant chapters of this novel centers on Ivan—the openly religiously antagonistic son. He claims that he doesn’t necessarily reject God outright, rather “what [he does] not accept and cannot accept is the God-created world” (Dostoevsky, 283). He is particularly troubled by the suffering of innocent children (one cannot help but draw a parallel between this monologue and how he perceives himself in relation to his sinful father). He goes on to state that it is actually his duty to reject his ticket to heaven in that it was paid with the blood money of blameless children. But Dostoevsky posits—if there is no God, then can’t anyone do anything they want at any time, unrestrained? This notion refers to the main character of Crime and Punishment—Raskolnikov (what a name)—who advocates for the idea of a superior man-class that can justifiably transgress societal laws for the greater good. As such, this novel engages in some serious philosophical inquiries—what does mankind look like if there’s no God to guide or impose morality? Crime for an atheist might not only be permissible but inevitable (Dostoevsky, 80)! This ethical grappling can have very serious physical manifestations-- as when Ivan catches “brain fever” (lol) and hallucinates. My favorite chapter is “Ivan’s Nightmare and the Devil” where he talks to a fictitiously concocted being of the underworld. Dostoevsky’s commentary might not be subtle here—perhaps all disbelieving men and women might actually succumb to a debilitating disease of the brain and be forced to talk to little red men with tails that aren’t actually there. 

               As you can see, Dostoevsky’s writings reflect his personal philosophical and theological growth. I mentioned this as a literary limitation in Crime and Punishment because I think that his own changing views result in an unrealistic development of Raskolnikov. Here, in his last book, at a time when his beliefs are more firmly consolidated, he is able to infuse the characters and plot with his own ideas in a lucid, cogent way. Of this book, he says “I’d die happy if I could finish this final novel, for I would have expressed myself completely” (Dostoevsky, back cover). He has an array of literary devices, which he employs in quite the idiosyncratic fashion, and he delves into important, life-altering themes like self-abnegation, punishment as a means of rejuvenation and cleansing, love as a form of slavery, freedom as a form of suffering, etc.  I cannot overstate the impressive intricacy of Dostoevsky’s thematic elements enough. Coinciding with the emancipation of the serfs, this novel portrays the lower classes as a people attempting to prove and assert themselves as intellectually capable. In fact, I think you could make a convincing argument that this novel is mostly about people striving to achieve what they have been denied their entire lives... but that is for another day.

               Still, while all of this is meaningful and interesting, I do think that a good portion of this novel is unnecessary. It depicts Dostoevsky’s syntactical skill, but there are several descriptions that don’t strike me as useful or even beautiful to read. I acknowledge the need to develop an elaborate plot with brooding, complicated characters…but I don’t need to know what a character’s second cousin likes to wear as she drinks tea on a Tuesday. He really wants to set the scene and saturate events with lengthy description. On an unrelated note, many of his chapters are very explicitly named to the point that I found it comical. For instance: “Mitya Reveals His Secret and Is Heckled”—I wonder what that one is about (Dostoevsky, 590)?

Of course, I must also comment on his unique narrative style. The narrator is privy to the character’s thoughts and actions but he is not omniscient in the conventional way. He actually lives amongst them. He relays the story almost as if it a piece of hot gossip and at times he admits to having a bias of personal affection for specific characters, Alyosha especially. As a fellow member of the community, he can even be disturbed by the drama. He confesses, “Utter confusion followed. I cannot remember in proper order what happened then, because I myself was terribly agitated and was in no state to observe developments properly” (Dostoevsky, 827). I can always appreciate an innovative narration.

Taking into account the novel’s philosophical provocations, its gratuitous longevity, and a style that takes some getting used to, I give it 3 out of 5 humps. If you’re trying to jump on the Dostoevsky train, I recommend this. If you’re trying to avoid the tracks altogether, perhaps try your hand at other classic Russian literature. Fear not, reviews on Anna Karenina and War and Peace are not too far way and in the mean time, there’s always Lolita.

*Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Andrew H MacAndrew. New York: Bantam Books Inc., 1970. Print.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

I live in a shitty apartment in Queens with two Serbian strippers who barely speak English. *Things you succumb to in order to afford brunch and getting your fortune told on a Sunday night at a speakeasy poetry reading because you’ve had too much featured absinthe and you were intrigued by the guy in the corner with a turban*. I meet them and I’m all like, “what was Siberia like?” until I realize that Siberia is not equivalent to Serbia. Tomato, tomahto. Once I settle in—AKA learn how to cross my fingers just right to get the stove burners to work—I ask basic living arrangement questions. I wonder, “how do I get my mail?” and they’re like, “what did you say about a tail?” I will never, ever understand where my letters go, so don’t bother sending me anything. Which means, I can spend as much money as I want without actually paying for it, riiiight? I’ll have to become a fugitive and dye my hair blonde despite my dark features. So, I’ll end up looking something like this: 

Side note: my roommates now demand that I pay my rent in cash instead of a check because “it’s easier”. I told them it was easier to just not pay rent at all but they didn’t understand me because THEY DON’T SPEAK MY LANGUAGE.
Glad I got that off my chest. It was also a surreptitiously excellent way to start my review because this is exactly how Jenny Lawson writes. If you don’t like the paragraph above, then you won’t like this book. You’re welcome for saving you the time and effort. Jenny Lawson, not to be confused with the real J-law who kills it in American Hustle, is a sassy 41-year old blogger. Her eccentricity launched her to fame circa 2006 and her New York Times bestselling “mostly true” memoir—Let’s Pretend This Never Happened*-- increased her celeb status in 2012. See for big laughs. But don't start visiting her blog more than mine cause that's f***** up. (I don't know why I feel the need to censor that word. I mean, it's a goddamn word made of arbitrary letters. I guess I want to attain employment in the future but perhaps that's too far gone).

This particular book is a witty recollection of her simultaneously most ridiculous and most defining life moments, from childhood until now. Her writing centers around the following themes: growing up in a home that was loving but completely chaotic, tormenting her husband Victor who somehow half-tolerates her, comedically coping with an endless list of debilitating ailments (OCD, depression, anxiety, and rheumatoid arthritis to name a few), and mothering her adorable daughter that is the miraculous product of many miscarriages.  She has a darker, more tumultuous history than most, but she infuses her life with laughter, acknowledging that the times she should theoretically want to pretend never happened have shaped her into the mischievously talented woman she is today.

There is not much plot to divulge, so instead, here are some chapter names to get your imagination going:
  • Draw Me a F****** Dog,
  • And That’s Why Neil Patrick Harris Would Be the Most Successful Mass Murderer Ever
  • Thanks for the Zombies, Jesus
  • It Wasn’t Even My Crack
  • And Then I Snuck a Dead Cuban Alligator on an Airplane
She also has a hilarious chapter about a time in high school where she tripped acid and came to the divine conclusion that “Smurfs were actually peaceful bixsexual communists” which is totally true (Lawson, 79).

Being inside her book is like being inside her head—she says what she wants to say, unfiltered. One passage reads: “Three words: Stanley, the Magical Squirrel. Actually that’s four words, but I don’t think you’re supposed to count the word ‘the’ since it isn’t important enough to be capitalized. All of this will be fixed by my editor by the time you read this anyway, so really I could write anything here. Like, did you know that Angelina Jolie hates Jewish people” (Lawson, 25)? Her editor might need to be fired.

As if being a funny woman wasn’t enough to make me fall head over heels, she is from the Lone Star State. At one point, she quotes a man who quotes Sam Houston, saying, “Texas can make it without the United states, BUT THE UNITED STATES CAN’T MAKE IT WITHOUT TEXAS”(Lawson, 242)! The New Yorker in me is like that is ludicrous, I hate anyone who would say something like that, and the Texan in me is like YES, THAT IS SO TRUE. REMEMBER THE ALAMO! I’ve been a Texan for 24 years and a New Yorker for one, so guess who overpowers whom.

All in all, this is really fun to read. For God’s sake, she’s able to use the phrase “work-related porn clip” in her memoir because she worked a freelance gig as a porn reviewer when she originally quit her HR job to become a writer (Lawson, 266). I recommend pairing the book with a glass (or five) of cheap red wine. And throw in a block of cheese while you’re at it. She cusses a lot in it, which is obviously not okay in my opinion because I’m a lady, but I’m willing to look past that shit. My only real complaint is an odd one—it’s a little too animal heavy. Her dad operated a self-owned taxidermy business, which contributed to several unusual stories involving wild animals, both alive and dead. It’s a lighthearted, laugh-worthy read with a good message about embracing your individuality, but to put it on par with the brilliance of something like Lolita strikes me as unsettling, so I give it 4 out of 5 camel humps. Read it and weep (since you’ll laugh so hard, you cry)!

Of note: Everything in the first paragraph is factual. I live with Siberian strippers. You should come over sometime.

*Lawson, Jenny. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. New York: Berkley Books, 2012. Print.