Friday, September 8, 2006

What I've Been Reading: Beginning of September

  • The Quiet American by Graham Greene
  • Blue Angel by Francine Prose
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

Somehow Graham Greene has become one of my favorite writers. Sneaked up on me, he did. Thing is, I find that I've read a number of his novels now, they're all good, and they all remain distinct in my memory, though I read my first Greene, Brighton Rock (with that wonderful, evil Pinky), way back in 1992.

My friend Mike (one of my Mikes) recommended The Quiet American to me a couple of months ago. It's not my favorite Greene novel--that honor still belongs to The Power and the Glory--but it's certainly as good as all of the others I've read.

As a writer, I take away the belief that this is the way to write a political novel. Without getting into the details, I will say that The Quiet American is such a successful political novel because Greene pulls off a trifecta: He connects the political both to the personal, not to mention interpersonal, struggles of the narrator and to the larger, more abstract, philosophical issues. This raises the stakes of the story in pretty much every possible dimension.

As a reader, I'm taking away (not all that happily) the picture of a child, dead in a ditch, atop a nibbled hunk of bread. Maybe it's because I'm a father, probably it's because I'm a weenie, certainly I'm being manipulated, but I found the image devastating.

How to transition from the sublime to the ridiculous? I know I'm supposed to hate campus novels, especially campus novels about writers or English professors, especially campus novels about writers or English professors sleeping with their students. But I just don't hate them. I like them actually. I tend to kind of seek them out. There. It's out. I love Lucky Jim and Tobias Wolff's Old School, liked Wonder Boys and Straight Man. Prose's novel fits right in. At first, I was kinda meh. If this is supposed to be satire, and I'm not sure it is, as it seems perfectly realistic to me, though the blurbs seem to be steering me to satire, it should probably be funnier. But then I realized that Prose was doing a little sly metafictional playing around, which I thought cool. You don't see a lot of subtle metafiction. And by the end I even got wrapped up in the doom of the protagonist. Good book, if you're willing to admit you don't hate campus novels.

Speaking of subtle--NOT! (Do the kids still say this? "Blah blah blah . . . NOT!" I like to think I'm hip. Do the kids still say "hip?") I've been carting around J.M Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians since 1992, when I failed to read it for Professor Moses's Third World and Post-Colonial Literature course. I was surprised to find that I didn't really care for it. Seems like the kind of thing I'd like. A little Beckett. Some Kafka. Family resemblance to McCarthy's Blood Meridian. But, nope. Didn't like it. One thing that bugged me was the uneasy admixture of the allegorical/archetypal with the psychological depth given the narrator. I can see this was deliberate, so I should probably just let that slide. But to me, the book seems pulled in two mutually exclusive directions. Seems weird that I'm so thoroughly in this guy's head, but I don't know the year, the country, the names of most of the characters, etc.

My bigger problem was with the lack of subtlety of the theme, its images, and its symbols. I've seen other people complain that English and Literature Dept.'s tend to skew our perception of what qualifies as literature because someone teaching a literature course will naturally favor a text that requires some explication. People say this explains the centrality of books like Ulysses. Of course they ignore the fact that Ulysses is a pretty amazing, influential, and ambitious book. More importantly, they ignore the demonstrable fact that your typical English professor has never met a text that didn't require explication. (I know whereof I speak.)

Waiting for the Barbarian, to my mind, suffers from a related problem. It seems almost pandering in its need to be explicated. Not because there are difficult or obscure allusions or bits of context the reader needs, but because the pattern of imagery is so bald and obvious. To wit: Hmm. . . this character wears dark glasses. What could it mean? Is he blind, perhaps, to light? Could light have some other meaning? It makes me think of . . . truth. And what does it mean that the barbarian girl cannot see the narrator's face? That the narrator cannot remember the barbarian woman's face? Let me think--not fast enough, Capps! The narrator has already more or less explained what it means. She is "the other" to our narrator. For the love of criminey, he actually uses the phrase "the other." And then he explicitly states his theory about historical time and non-historical time. Can you see what I mean by pandering? This is kiddie-lit. No professorial explication required. So easy, even the most hungover undergrad can work it out himself. All loose end tied up, no need to deal with untidy contradictions.

Everyone seems to like Coetzee but me. Probably I'm wrong. Anybody have a recommendation for another I should try? Harold Bloom suggests Foe. Anyone?

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