Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Satanic Verses

Some final thoughts about The Satanic Verses (for now):

  • The title also refers to Chamcha's verses that he uses to drive Gibreel crazy.  What's the thematic connection to Mahound's "Satanic Verses"?  I think that in both cases, Gibreel merely acts as a receptacle for the verses.  He's a pretty passive character over-all.
  • It's annoying that the narrator is never really identified, especially when Rushdie plays a lot of games with his identity ("I know what happened; I was there."  "I appeared to Gibreel"). I'm still going with Satan, but I'd be willing to accept some other name (the angel Gibreel?  almost definitely not God -- I'd have a tough time buying that one).
  •  There's a huge thread left hanging -- it's implied that Gibreel started turning England into a tropical climate.  But that whole idea is dropped on the floor.
  • Chamcha's flexibility is really what saves him in the end.  He can accept two sides for himself -- the Indian and the English, or good & bad, or several other antinomies.  Gibreel, though, is too rigid to let himself be challenged.  That purity that makes him "good" for the narrator is his downfall; he's so self-accepting that he is judgmental of others, and ends up acting like Othello -- manipulated into believing the worst of Allie and killing her.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Satanic Verses, Gun Monkeys

I read Gun Monkeys by Victor Gishler.  I think that about covers everything worth saying about that book.

I'm still making my way through The Satanic Verses, and it continues to be an intriguing book, although it also continues to feel to me like a somewhat disconnected one.  Some more random thoughts:

  • There's a policeman named Stephen Kinch, and obvious reference to Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses.  But, other than a shout-out to Joyce fans, I'm not sure what the reference means.
  • Rushdie's narrator asserts that Gibreel is good because he's "authentic" and that Chamcha is bad because he's faking Englishness.  But if the narrator is Satan (as I still believe), what do his assertions mean?  Certainly Chamcha does some bad things (though, notably, after he sheds hoof and horn), but so does Gibreel.  Indeed, Gibreel is vulnerable because of his incredible jealous streak.
  • I'm not sure I like the magical realism.  I find the realistic parts of the book to be the most affecting, and the magical parts to be a bit pointless.  Chamcha comes to realize how cruel English society can be when he metamorphoses, but that seems like a really clumsy approach to prince/pauper scenario.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Satanic Verses

I'm about halfway through Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, but it's never too early to post some preliminary thoughts that will seem foolish once I've finished the book.  So here are some random thoughts...

  • In some ways, the book strikes me as being Joycean.  Like Ulysses, it's self-conscious, discursive, with wildly differing sections.  Also like Ulysses, it's quite funny, and yet people don't often seem to discuss that aspect of it.  On the other hand, Ulysses has a fairly obvious underlying continuity. Aside from the hidden schemata, it's easy to see that this is the story of a day in the lives of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Satanic Verses, on the other hand, has huge sections in which his major characters barely show up, like the famous chapter about Mahound the prophet, or the chapter mocking Khomeini.
  •  The book seems to scream for a symbolic reading -- Gibreel becomes an angel, Saladin becomes a devil.  But looking at it through a symbolic lens feels reductive.  Gibreel is not particularly angelic, not is Saladin particularly devilish.  But it doesn't feel like one can simply play the irony card either.  In a way, it's almost like they're part of two different stories.  Saladin's transformation literalizes his separation from British society, no matter how "British" he tries to be.
  • Gibreel's story feels comparatively underdeveloped (keeping in mind that I'm only halfway through the book).  There are some sections where he only appears as the angel Gibreel to dictate to Mahound or Khomeini or the girl with white hair whose name I can't remember.  Even there, he's not in control of what he says.  (Although I suppose that could literalize his role as an actor, but that doesn't really make sense either, because Saladin is also an actor).  It's almost as if Rushdie wanted to write those sections, and then looked for a way to tie them into the book he was writing, however tenuously.
  • I think that the narrator's supposed to be Satan.
  • Although I wrote above that the novel doesn't feel unified, there are clear thematic links between most of the parts.  Both Mahound and Khomeini's sections deal with being an immigrant to a foreign country, not fitting in.  And, of course, most of the main story is about being an immigrant as well.  But it's still a pretty weak link, I think -- more the sort of thing you might find in a book of related short stories.
  • Question:  Why is the book called The Satanic Verses, when they're only the subject of one section?  Probably worth puzzling through that.

Friday, April 16, 2010

SPQR I: The King's Gambit, Metamorphoses

SPQR is a fun series (or at least the first book is fun) about a detective-equivalent in ancient Rome.  John Maddox Roberts seems to know his history pretty well, even to the extent that one could probably place the exact year in which this book is set (13 years before Caesar's assassination, a couple of years before the Catiline conspiracy).  It's also subject to the usual problems in these novels -- Decius Septimus, the protagonist, manages to run into most of the major historical figures of the period, as well as a few minor ones (so Julius Caesar appears in a walk-on, as do Cicero, Catiline, and Pompey.  Claudis Pulcher and his sister have bigger roles, and so on).  Also, Roberts occasionally likes to show off his research in pointless asides, like the one where he tells us about Cicero's secretary inventing shorthand.  Moderately cool if you didn't already know, I suppose, but there's no reason to think that Decius the character would care about it.

Having made those complaints, I must say it was a fun novel, and I'd probably read another in the series.

I also finished Metamorphoses book 5.  I think I'll take a break from that and switch over to the Aeneid for a while.

Outer Dark again

Some random ramblings about Outer Dark:

It feels to me like Culla's real sins in the book are more of omission than commission.  I'll leave out the incest for now, since it happens before the start of the novel.  Probably the worst thing he does in the course of the novel is to leave the baby alone in the woods, probably to die.  However, we can also look at this as a case of malign neglect -- rather than his actually killing the chap, he leaves it there for, as it happens, the tinker to find.

After that, we have the case where he doesn't put out his hand to help the swineherd as he's swept away in the stampede.  And, of course, the scene at the end of the novel (which is what actually led me down this chain of thought in the first place), where he doesn't bother telling a blind man that there's a swamp ahead of him.

I'm not sure how to put this into a context of crime/punishment, which really seems critical to the novel's underlying moral sense.  It feels like there's some sort of malign fate at work -- you may not get rewarded for your good deeds, but you'll certainly be punished for the bad ones.  Even Rinthy, who's spared much of Culla's worst fate is still unable to be redeemed, as the chap dies before she can ever find him.  I think that the milk she expresses through most of the novel is a sort of stigmata -- a representation of the crime that she can't find absolution for -- but it also functions as a goad to drive her to find her son.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wuthering Heights, Outer Dark

Two dark literary books at once, almost enough to drive a man to drink...

Wuthering Heights is the Gothic novel par excellence, with saturnine householders, surly servants, repressed passions, everything one could want in a Gothic.  Which leads me to think that ultimately the Gothic novel genre is not for me.  Rather than focusing on the book's warts, though, I want to think about its interesting narrative structure.  There's a frame story, where Mr. Lockwood (?) comes to the Heights and meets Heathcliff, Catherine, et al.  Then we're introduced to the housekeeper, Ellen Dean, who tells most of the story, and she occasionally gives us long sections in someone else's first person.

Mr. Lockwood's frame is longer than most, and also more involved.  He interrupts Ellen's story every so often, and gives us his impressions of the characters, sometimes differing from hers.  When she breaks into someone else's account, she also will then sometimes disagree with that person's interpretations.  I think that this is to put us in a frame of mind to question everyone's impressions.  It's not really a standard unreliable narrator, since everyone agrees on the events that have taken place; it's more a matter of interpretation.  Ellen, for example, seems to several times mistake Heathcliff's sarcasm for his actual opinions.  So, while there's no question that he's a villain, I think there's room to debate his motivations.  She's also harsher on Linton than may be warranted.

I loved all the post-Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy books that I read (the Westerns), but I never really got into Suttree, which many seem to consider his best Southern novel.  So I never tried the earlier Southern novels, and, based on Outer Dark, that was a mistake.  Outer Dark has the same strengths as the later novels -- a wonderful ear for the rhythms of dialog and a distinctive narrative style.  He also draws heavily on biblical allusions (the title itself comes out of the New Testament).  I think that one key to understanding this novel is the biblical aspect.  Culla seems to bear a mark of Cain; he can't settle anywhere, and wherever he goes, people's hands are turned against him.  At the same time, nobody actually has the authority to kill him, not even the three wild men who kill almost everyone they come across.

But these men also lead us into non-biblical territory.  At first, they seem to be a personification of the Furies, and, looked at through that lens, it's impossible not to see the Greek Tragedy aspects of the novel.  Culla and Rinthy can't escape from the misdeed that they've done before the story starts.  In the end, there's no redemption for either of them.  Although the three men don't attack Culla physically, by the end of the novel they've cut off any chance that he and Rinthy could find redemption in raising their son.

Against all this crushing darkness, I do think McCarthy leaves us with one glimmer of hope.  Throughout their travels, both Rinthy and Culla find people willing to share what little they have, and especially in Rinthy's case to offer food and drink with no recompense.  I think that these sparks of decency are supposed to illuminate the darkness that is otherwise always threatening to come in and smother us all.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Beyond the Wood, Cabal

A couple of series books this time and a classic.

I'm catching up to the present in my Dalziel/Pascoe reading; Beyond the Wood was written just over a decade ago.  But its heart is set in WWI, specifically at Passchendaele, where British forces fell in huge numbers to conquer a very small area of land.  Pascoe finds out that one of his grandfathers was court-martialled and executed for cowardice in the battle, and he investigates further.  The WWI story doesn't really impinge on the modern story, which I actually thought was a good thing; very often mystery authors try to tie two crimes together -- one from the distant past and one in the present -- and it's pretty unconvincing.

The other notable event in this book was that Dalziel falls for a suspect again.  It's reminiscent of An April Shroud, the fourth book in the series (and Hill even has one of the characters mention the earlier case), but Hill handles it more maturely and subtly this time around.  On the one hand, it's not fun to see an author turn to recycling earlier plot ideas, but in cases like this, where he returns to a theme that he wasn't as adroit at earlier, I think it's nice to see the improvement.

The theme of Cabal is illusion and reality and their interaction.  The book centers around a mysterious conspiracy within the Knights of Malta that conducts assassinations and controls finances.  The punch line, of course, is that the conspiracy doesn't exist, but, even so, there are concrete results from the belief that they exist.  Crimes are committed to get more information about them, Aurelio's life is placed in jeopardy because others think he knows about them, and so on.  This theme carries through into the subplots as well -- there's a humorous side story about Aurelio and his girlfriend each suspecting the other of infidelity because they've created an illusion around the work they do, hiding the details from the other.

We also have Zen trying to actively be a corrupt cop, trying to take a bribe from a suspect to drop the case, and failing miserably by shooting the suspect instead.  In the end, fate seems to destine Aurelio for the side of the angels, even against his own wishes.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Water for Elephants, In the Heart of the Ocean, Vendetta

Continuing my return foray into Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series, I picked up Vendetta, the second novel.  This novel brings in another theme which will return sporadically through the series, the conflict between justice and politics.  Zen is brought in to investigate a murder case that seems open and shut.  But the alleged perpetrator would be politically embarrassing, so Zen is sent to "investigate" and find someone else to scapegoat.

Of course he finds that in fact someone else committed the crime, and that person is arrested, but, ironically, his success is just seen as further proof of his ability to manufacture a perfect scapegoat.  On the other hand, in a sort of double irony, justice is served in the end, because the guilty person is actually arrested and given a show trial, even if it's for all the wrong reasons.  It reminded me a bit of A Long Finish, in which Zen actually arrests the wrong person (unknowingly), but reflects to himself that it doesn't matter because the suspect's family will get him off anyhow, while the actual villain of that piece ends of dying of rabies.

I've been slowly making my way through Agnon's In the Heart of Ocean (Bil'vav yamim), and I'm not quite sure what to make of it yet.  The story is about a group of Polish Jews who make aliyah in the late 19th century.  There are originally 9 men and their wives, and they take on a tenth man, Hananiya, to make a minyan.  Hananiya gets left behind at one of the ports, but it seems that he flies on ahead riding on a big kerchief.  Which is exactly the sort of thing that makes the story so interesting -- it's a sort of magic realism from before there was such a category, and filtered through a Jewish perspective.

Agnon tells us the whole story through the eyes and the language of his characters.  When they have a discussion about the ways in which Satan tried to stop them from making aliyah, Satan's presence is taken as a given; he even talks to some of the characters.  It's hard to tell if this is supposed to be taken literally or symbolically, and I think that in the end it doesn't matter so much.  These characters live their lives surrounded by symbols, and they think symbolically.  (Eretz Israel symbolizes hope and a new beginning, the sea symbolizes difficulty, and so on).

Agnon's Hebrew usage is worth noting.  In keeping with these characters, he throws in a lot of Aramaicisms.  (Of course, the actual characters would not have been speaking Hebrew, but the Hebrew they speak is so foreign from actual spoken Hebrew in many ways that it creates a distancing effect.)  When they do actually speak Hebrew -- it's the only common language they have when they meet some Sephardic Jews in Turkey -- they call it The Holy Tongue instead of Hebrew.  Again, it's a distancing effect, reminding us of the mindset of these people, for whom every word of the Bible is holy.

I also read Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, and I thought it was okay, but really literature lite.  The setting, a circus in the 1930s, was interesting, and managed to pull me along about halfway through the book, but after that the flat characters pretty much palled on me.