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.