Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Red Pony

            It’s never a great sign when you finish a book and then immediately scan the inside cover to check if you picked up a mistakenly abridged version. Yet there I was, scanning over the last page of Steinbeck’s The Red Pony*, wondering what the hell happened.

            I was comforted by the fact that the book is indeed “abnormal” in the sense that it’s serialized fiction. Back in the day, literature commonly came to fruition via installments published in magazines. Kind of like how you’d experience weekly television programming today. We should bring this back immediately, but that’s beside the point.

            The Red Pony circulated as individual chapters from 1933-1936, and was published in its entirety as a novella in 1937. The first chapter is by far the most compelling. A young boy encounters responsibility for the first time, which is quickly and unexpectedly followed by his first encounter with mortality. The second chapter loses steam, focusing on a mysterious man who, despite his shroud of inexplicability, fails to hold my interest. The third chapter is slightly redeeming; it’s literally and figuratively pregnant with promise. The last chapter is rulllll depressing. It complicatedly condemns nostalgia and reminds us how much it sucks to get old.

            Per usual, Steinbeck reveals his hard on for manifest destiny narratives, speaking of early 20th century America in a way that’s equally full of potential and disappointment. I love this about him, and I came into this work expecting a certain level of quality. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling it. I reviewed The Pearl a while back and praised Steinbeck for his lyrical rhythm and mastery of gender complexities. I also reviewed East of Eden and applauded his ability to carefully unravel a storyline and keep me attentive for 500+ pages. I mentally reviewed Of Mice and Men, and remembered how oddly gratifying it was to feel simultaneously sad and utterly complete.
            Where does The Red Pony fit in, then? It’s simply not worth reading. When you have these other Steinbeck masterpieces at your fingertips, why bother with a story that’s a bit of a trudge to get through and unfulfilling in the end? Certainly, some characters pique my interest, but nothing is sufficiently developed. Perhaps this would be better as a longer-form novel. Either way, I give it 2 out of 5 camel humps.

*Steinbeck, John. The Red Pony. New York: Bantam Books, 1937, Print.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Plot Against America

            I’m trying to act more adult-like, so I’ve started organizing the Notes section in my iPhone by consolidating ideas into one header. When I read a book, I jot down things I could use for this blog, and I write the title at the top. I recently read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America*. You can imagine how it felt to be jammed next to a zillion people on the Subway, casually opening a Note conspicuously labeled “The Plot Against America”. The Middle Eastern guy next to me felt at ease with the knowledge that I was now the most apparently threatening person on the commute.

            As a novel, The Plot Against America rewrites history to explore what would have happened to America/the World if we had remained neutral during World War II. The interventionists argue that as a superpower, we can’t just turn the other way as Hitler spreads fascism and exterminates millions of people. They go further to predict that doing nothing will eventually come back to bite them, because Hitler’s rule will continue to extend until he amasses enough influence to take over America as well. On the other hand, the isolationists maintain that America just came out of World War I, and we shouldn’t needlessly sacrifice our men in “Europe’s war”.

            The logic behind both sides is obviously still alive and well. Ideally, we could find a balance between protecting our own and standing up for human rights. As cheesy as it sounds, I consider myself a citizen of the world rather than an American citizen. It is completely and totally arbitrary that I was born here; to pretend that I’m somehow inherently better or more entitled than citizens of other nations is silly and mean. Some might even say that line of thinking places you in a basket of deplorables. It’s one thing to be proud of your country; it’s another to remain blind to the fact that others don’t necessarily have that privilege, through no fault of their own.

            Roth does an excellent job of illustrating how the us vs. them mentality has very real consequences. His story is steeped in historical accuracy, and it is inspired by his experiences as a Jew growing up in 1940’s New Jersey. In his imagined world, Charles Lindbergh is nominated to office in 1940 in lieu of FDR. Lindbergh was an actual person, propelled to fame as an accomplished aviator, who expressed Anti-Semitic sentiments. In the novel, he is portrayed as an openly bigoted candidate who publicly denounces the Jewish population and gets away with it (these parallels are too easy, really). Once in office, he initiates a series of reforms that so gradually marginalizes the American Jewish population, it’s almost imperceptible to those not paying attention. For example, Homestead 42 is a government-sanctioned program that moves Jewish employees of specific corporations into other parts of the country. On paper, it claims to encourage assimilation and American unity. In reality, the redistribution effectively dismantles their electoral strength and strips them of communal support. Hindsight is 20/20, and at the time, most of America bought into the propaganda that carefully packaged the program as a *good opportunity* for Jewish families. When said families were like um, nay, this is a very bad thing, and I happen to like where I currently live, the rest of America viewed them as ungrateful/whiny, and reverted to any and all available Jewish stereotypes.

            Plot-wise, I am very into this. I’m not a huge historical fiction girl, but this is a great blend of semi-autobiographical elements + horrific historical facts + inventive details that are realistic enough to make you uncomfortable. In terms of writing style, Roth strikes an interesting cord by juxtaposing the narrator’s age with the narrator’s voice. Roth speaks in the past tense, recalling his childhood upbringing (and re-envisioning it). He is eloquent AF, which is a bit jarring considering the events are happening to a young boy. Roth carefully mixes a mature, retrospective intelligence with the youthful innocence of his main character at the time. The story isn’t told in childlike words, like in Room; it’s told complexly—with big words—without feeling overly contrived. 

            All of these things sound good…is there any bad? My biggest complaint is that it ends prematurely. I want more closure, and from a creative standpoint, I feel like he leaves several intriguing narrative threads on the table. The book is relatively long (400 pages), and the fact that I wasn’t ready for it to be over is indicative that he could have teased the story further and ended with more finality. Fortunately, what is there is thought provoking enough to sustain me. What happens when a corrupt/biased media dominates public perception? How can something as evil as genocide take root? What are the dangers of neglecting underrepresented populations? I’m a fan of Roth’s ability to transform history and maintain relevancy, and I’ll dock one-hump for his fizzled-out ending. Thus, The Plot Against America receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Roth, Philip. The Plot Against America. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.