Friday, April 11, 2014

Review: The Wolf Gift, by Anne Rice

Long before Stephenie Meyer made vampires popular in her Twilight series, Anne Rice had already been making them glamorous, yet dangerous, in her The Vampire Chronicles series. Unlike Meyer, Rice found the fact that vampires are immortal to be an object of fascination. Where Meyer's vampires choose to spend eternity as high schoolers (which should provide them with greater insight into the education system than anybody), Rice took a more mature route, exploring the identity crisis a vampire faces when changing from the living to the undead and suddenly having an appetite for human blood. Now Rice has undertaken the subject of the werewolf, another creature Meyer made popular among teenagers. But again, Rice explores the subject with more maturity, and more fascination, than Meyer. However, there are moments where it felt as though Rice was treading the Twilight line a little too closely, with cheesy melodrama and characters who are perhaps too nice - all leading to a rather anticlimactic ending.

It all begins with Reuben, a twenty-something year old man trying to find a comfortable niche for himself in life. Of course, he has it made. He is quite wealthy, mainly from some luck and inheritance. He enjoys his job as a newspaper reporter, and his stories are widely read. Yet, closing in on his thirties, he feels unaccomplished.

The story begins with Reuben researching an article on a large, secluded mansion, called Nideck Point, where its owner, Marchent Nideck, is planning to sell it. Reuben is excited to write this story, but develops a growing sense to buy the house himself. Like I said, he has plenty of money. He knows his girlfriend, Celeste, would be aghast, but he's not entirely sure he's happy with her. His mother, Grace, might also complain, but his father, Phil, a retired college professor and a poet, would no doubt love the place. It becomes clear to Marchent that Reuben adores the place, and eventually, inevitably, the two develop a strong attraction. Reuben agrees to buy the place, and she agrees to sell it to him. Immediately, without his knowledge, she signs it over to him. After a slowly built, though engrossing, introduction, the main plot begins when the werewolf strikes that night.

Werewolves aren't the most exciting of the classic monsters. Vampires, much more human and more subtly dangerous, tend to make the most interesting movie villains or antiheroes. Zombies are less compelling in terms of character depth, but make for some fun, gore-filled action. A werewolf seems more akin to the Hulk, an intelligent human transforming into a brute, thoughtless creature bent on havoc and destruction. There's also a sexual appeal to the werewolf, one different from the vampire because it is not a human sexuality. It represents some beastly desire in both man and woman - the thrill of the hunter and the hunted. The werewolf in most stories either tears through the woods and randomly kills villagers, or it is the object of desire from some young maiden and the object of scorn and fear from the villagers. Thus a hunt is inevitable. Rice, however, sidesteps the usual conventions.

Reuben nearly loses his life that night, as a pair of intruders assault him, and then he is bitten by a strange dog-like beast. Right away it's clear something has happened to him. Reuben recovers quickly in the hospital, with a vitality that astonishes not only his family and the doctors, but himself. His wounds heal miraculously fast, and he begins to develop a super sense. He can hear what people are saying on another floor of the hospital and then on the streets outside. He becomes distressed by cries of help. Meanwhile, his mother wants to probe deeper into what happened that night. There was no trace of an animal at the mansion, despite Reuben's claims of what saved him. She grows worried when she realizes there's something odd about Reuben's own blood samples, which are corrupted before they can even be tested.

Reuben undergoes a transformation, both physically and mentally. His mother and his girlfriend note how much more handsome and larger he has grown. He's also no longer the timid young man they remembered. He seems apathetic, as though he no longer cares about the things the old Reuben used to care about. There's one change only Reuben knows, however, and that's his ability to transform into a wolf man at night. Not only can he hear voices from afar, but he can smell evil. He has an instinctive impulse to kill the bad and rescue the good. In no time the man wolf becomes an object of fascination to the media and of trepidation to the police. He realizes he can no longer stay at home, and moves into the seclusion of the mansion.

There is plenty more that Reuben becomes obsessed with, particularly werewolf lore and his own roots. The mystery, for some time, is who transformed him? What will happen when he confronts that person, or beast? Another woman also comes into play, one much more sensitive and caring than Celeste. Rice seems much more interested in philosophical musings than pure action, which is both good and bad. One of the central questions is, if Reuben can sense evil and has a desire to destroy it, is he good? His goodness is tainted by the fact that he kills people, evil as they are, without a chance for a trial. Reuben wrestles with the morality of his actions, but finds the desire to carry them out much too strong. He tries to justify what he does by pointing out that the victims of evil also did not have a chance for a fair trial. Their lives were shortened by an act of malice. Doesn't it only make it right to get even? But if one justifies killing out of revenge, when will the line of revenge stop?

Rice enjoys getting into the sensations of being a wolf man. There's a strong desire to feast on a newly killed creature, human or otherwise, and the excitement is greater when the challenge is greater. But no beast can match Reuben's strength as the man wolf. Rice explains his kills with vivid, gory detail. The transformation also comes with pleasurable sensations, and he has strong sexual desires, which are met by a lonely woman who is happy to accommodate. What strikes me as odd about the sex scenes is the description of Reuben the man wolf planting kisses all over her body. Does he have a face more human-like than wolf-like? Or are his kisses of the dog variety - that is, licking?

At about the halfway mark the story begins to lose steam. It seems as though Rice didn't have a goal in mind when writing it, and thus fails to create a compelling conflict. There's the mysterious and suspicious Dr. Jaska who wants to meet Reuben. There's also the discovery of Reuben's maker. Both of these plot points resolve anticlimactically. The story decides to go the route of the origin story, with Reuben eventually discovering the history of his kind. These kinds of stories, for me, are more boring than engaging. They add very little in terms of conflict or drama, because they serve as little more than lengthy back story. A few interesting developments occur about three-quarters of the way into the book before things begin to run on auto pilot.

And now I come back to our Twilight comparison. In Twilight, very little of interest happens. The Cullens live a life of luxury, with plenty of wealth and a nice secluded home, and we see similar developments in The Wolf Gift, with fancy dinners thrown seemingly every night. Edward wrestles with the decision to change Bella into a vampire so she can enjoy immortality with him forever, and this is no different than what develops in The Wolf Gift. What makes Rice's story different is its interest in philosophy. Unfortunately this philosophy is more ponderous than intriguing. Towards the end things feel a little too safe, which fails to make for compelling storytelling. I can only hope that things get more interesting in The Wolves of Midwinter and that Rice does not descend into the sameness that plagues the conclusion of The Wolf Gift.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review: Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut wrote his most well-known works less than two decades after George Orwell published 1984, yet the themes between Orwell's work and Cat's Cradle are very similar: the consequences of the existence of nuclear weaponry. Orwell's biggest fear was that nuclear war would pave the way for authoritarian governments to rule the world. Vonnegut's biggest fear, however, was that nuclear war would lead to the annihilation of the human race. In the face of complete devastation, what is the meaning of life? Vonnegut's characters, and perhaps even Vonnegut himself, struggles with this nihilistic attitude. They, like all of us, would like to believe life has a greater meaning.

The story is told by John, in the first person, as he attempts to write a novel titled The Day the World Ended. The novel's opening line establishes its struggle with nihilism: "Call me Jonah." This is an obvious reference to Moby-Dick's opening line, "Call me Ishmael." Except in this case, the main character isn't really named Jonah, but John, suggesting he has a desire for a name fraught with Biblical meaning instead of a common name with no meaning.

John's quest is to learn everything he can about the father of the atom bomb, Felix Hoenikker. Felix is dead, but he has left behind three children: Frank, who has disappeared; Angela, who was forced to live much of her life as a caretaker of her father; and Newt, who was born a dwarf and has artistic aspirations. John writes letters to Newt in order to learn what it was like at the Hoenikker house the day the bomb was dropped. Turns out it was just an ordinary day. John also visits Dr. Breed, Felix's supervisor, and from him learns about a mythical weapon Felix imagined called Ice-Nine. Ice-Nine would be capable of freezing all bodies of water at once, depriving the world of what it needs to sustain life. What Dr. Breed didn't know was that Felix actually did create Ice-Nine.

Just as Vonnegut makes up an alien species in Slaughterhouse-Five, he makes up a religion in Cat's Cradle. This religion is Bokononism, founded by Bokonon, whose purpose is to show that people can be made to feel good by a religion based on lies. The Book of Bokonon warns that its teachings and writings are nothing but lies, but John, much like the rest of the followers of Bokonon, glaze over that part. Bokonon teaches that all people have a karass, which is a group of people connected by some force, and that each karass is driven by two wampeters, one waxing and one waning. The supreme act of Bokononist love and peaceful meditation is to touch the naked soles of your feet to those of another person, and this is called boko-maru. Vonnegut makes up many other Bokononist words as well, and defines them, though they sound meaningless. Perhaps that's the point.

Also made up is the island of San Lorenzo, which serves as the setting for the novel's second, and most entertaining, half. San Lorenzo is where Bokonon developed Bokononism, and it's also perhaps the only place in the world the religion is simultaneously outlawed yet practiced by all the people. Most of the important action happens on San Lorenzo, as it's the place where John meets the majority of the important characters. There's Mona, daughter of San Lorenzo's president, whose beauty was a huge inspiration for John's visit. Other very interesting events occur there, but I don't want to spoil the novel.

Cat's Cradle is a book that perhaps sometime in the near future I will have to visit again. I was not too impressed by the first half of the novel. There's a lot of background story, and then John happens to randomly run into people related to those he is interested in. When he comes upon Dr. Breed's son at a graveyard, it feels too much like Vonnegut is pulling the strings rather than letting the pieces fall naturally together. Maybe a second reading will change what I think of this first half, especially because the second half is so wonderful. It's where the book truly comes to life, making me laugh and feel depressed all at once.

There is a subtle undertone of anger reverberating through the novel. Many of the characters seem angry about something. Newt is angry about his small stature, and Angela is angry about her tall, unattractive stature. Dr. Breed is angry about John's seeming inability to truly understand science. John seems angry about the mass destruction that has been carried out with the aid of advanced science. Only the Bokononists on San Lorenzo aren't angry. They seem at peace, though they also seem apathetic. Vonnegut turns some surprising events on the island into great use as satire of a people's apathy towards governmental affairs. This is sad, funny, and scary all at once.

The title itself is the biggest clue regarding the novel's nihilism. Felix Hoenikker loved to make a cat's cradle out of a piece of string, but as Newt points out in one of the novel's most passionate lines, "There is no cat. There is no cradle." The cat's cradle is just a big fib. It's name has absolutely no connection with the design it creates - so why call it the cat's cradle? Newt has grown disillusioned by the magic of the world. Perhaps that's why religion is important, even the lies of Bokononism (and the rest of them, as Vonnegut seems to be suggesting), because it keeps magic alive in people's hearts. The atom bomb may have destroyed much of this magic because it portends the end of a world that humans have spent hundreds of thousands of years surviving and making meaning out of. All of it threatens to come crashing down by a single weapon that is the product of the knowledge passed down through humanity's history. Instead, let's follow the example of Bokonon: let's remove our shoes, sit down, and press the soles of our feet together in peaceful boko-maru.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Review: 1984, by George Orwell

These days the popular dystopias are written for teenagers. With the exception of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the dystopias getting the most attention (and movie deals) are the likes of The Hunger Games and Divergent. These teen stories tend to focus much more on romance issues than they do on the larger social issues. Not that romance is irrelevant in a dystopia, but what should make it compelling is how such a romance is affected, or made dangerous by, the oppressive society the people live in. The Hunger Games only takes a shallow look at this, with poor Katniss moping over whether she should show more affection to Gale or Peeta. Despite being over 60 years old, George Orwell's 1984 manages to top the teen dystopias both in terms of social criticism and romance. It offers plenty of lessons not only for modern authors jumping into the genre, but also to modern society, as technology has advanced to the point of potentially making Orwell's warnings come true.

Where Suzanne Collins chooses her heroine, Katniss Everdeen, to have extraordinary athletic ability and Legolas-like skills with a bow and arrow, George Orwell provides his hero, Winston Smith, with varicose ulcers in his ankle. Winston has spent his adult life as a member of the Outer Party in London, in the nation of Oceania, which consists of the Americas and Britain. Under the watching eyes of Big Brother, Winston, like the rest of the party members, lives under constant fear that he will be accused of harboring thoughts against Big Brother. Telescreens keep an eye on citizens even in the comfort of their own homes. Thought Police detect rebellious thoughts by reading facial expressions. People often disappear without warning. Those who remain are left in terror.

Language itself has even undergone serious changes. This language is called Newspeak. Its purpose is to make speech more efficient by cutting out unnecessary words. Why have ten ways to say something is good when one will suffice? If you think your food is excellent, you would say it is plusgood or doubleplusgood. The purpose is to prevent thoughtcrime by eradicating the vocabulary required to think against the party. As one of the party mottoes goes, "Ignorance is Strength:" it is better that citizens are stupid in order that Big Brother stay in power. And as our government continues to make cuts to education spending, one must wonder whether some of our politicians haven't adopted this motto for themselves

Winston, as is required of heroes in the genre, despises the oppressive system he lives under. Nonetheless, he sees no choice but to continue to act as a tool of Big Brother in order to stay alive. He works in the Ministry of Truth, where, instead of truth, lies are told. And, ironically, Winston enjoys his work. He rewrites history to always make Big Brother look good. If Big Brother had made a prediction that turned out to be inaccurate, it's Winston's job to rewrite old articles so Big Brother was actually right. The ability to control history is a powerful one. One can turn the tide of opinion for or against a person by erasing a mistake or creating a narrative of horror. History, really, is only what is written and what is passed down, not what really happened. Nobody can go back and prove what really happened because the past no longer exists. It can easily be changed if everyone is convinced of an alternate version. Even in our internet era of surplus information, truth and fiction can easily become mixed up.

The novel's first third sets up much of the background on the society. It establishes characters, none of whom Winston is very close to. It's dangerous to be close friends with somebody because that person could just as easily turn you in. However, the novel turns to romance after the initial introductions, exciting romance because it is dangerous. It is also an adult romance. Winston and his love interest are physically attracted to one another, and they do more than just make out. Sex for pleasure is an act of rebellion in a world where scientists are working to abolish the orgasm. The portrayals of attraction in The Hunger Games are less realistic because they remove the element of sex. In its PG-13 world, the kiss is the major payoff. Humans have a biological need to act out on sexual urges, and in times of oppression that urge can become stronger because it is repressed.

While 1984 is certainly more for adults than The Hunger Games, it is, nonetheless, still widely taught in high schools. Part of me wonders whether its inclusion in the curriculum is due to a continuing influence of anti-communist thought from the Cold War era. It has some important ideas to consider, to be sure, and is very imaginative and frightening, but at the same time it's not particularly great writing. Orwell spends large chunks of time wading through dull ideology, much of it anti-communist, particularly as we read the sections from the book of Emanuel Goldstein, the leader of the rebellion against Big Brother. If Orwell had reduced or removed a lot of these passages, the book would be vastly improved. I'm also concerned by the way the book is taught in schools. It seems less importance is placed on the ideas in the book and more on minute details. When a test question asks how old Winston and Julia are, our literature education is sadly missing the mark.

1984 truly stands out in its feeling of hopelessness. In this world created by atomic destruction, power was taken by those who most wanted to hold onto it, at any cost. There's a sense that this lone man, Winston, can do nothing against such a power as Big Brother and the Thought Police. The reader has hope, to be sure, that he can. There's a belief that he can. Our culture perceives that the hero always wins. In movies, in books, in video games, the good guy wins the day, no matter how grim the situation. That's why 1984 is so terrifying. The best hero it can come up with is a man with varicose ulcers in his vein. As it begins to hurtle towards its conclusion the terror grows greater. While I do have some misgivings about the book, I can't help but admire the way Orwell mercilessly crushes our hopes. If society does go the way of 1984 (a big "if," admittedly), there's no guarantee somebody will be able rise up and do the right thing. That's what's frightening. The heroism of the individual is merely a myth.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt

The best memoirs detail an extraordinary life (either good or bad) or use humor, or both. Frank McCourt's does both, though perhaps the humor is more prevalent than anything extraordinary. In fact, what McCourt writes in his memoir, Angela's Ashes, was probably typical for a poor Irish family during the Great Depression/World War II era. Perhaps, in some ways, it's typical of a poor family today, though I suppose a moment in time will never be typical in comparison to another. McCourt never had an iPhone, anyway. What makes Angela's Ashes so extraordinary is that McCourt is able to make the day-to-day life of his childhood so fascinating, and his ability to write about some terrible life experiences with humor instead of self-pity.

At the age of four, Frank McCourt, whose parents met and married in New York, moved to his ancestral homeland of Ireland. Had they remained in New York, this would have been a different story. Christened Francis, Frank never had an easy time at life. His father was an alcoholic who couldn't hold onto a job because he'd blow his wages at a pub and forget to go in to work the next day. To make things worse, his father was from the north, and Frank apparently had his father's odd manner. His family had to live on the dole, Ireland's welfare system, because work was hard to find. Frank's father, Malachy, was a proud man who never collected the dole himself. This was a task for his wife. Malachy found more pride sitting on his arse at home or the pub. Though men are usually thought of as the stronger of the two sexes, history shows often it's the women who step forward during times of struggle. Men take it as a psychological blow when they lose their ability to support their family.

Frank had a large family. His parents wed when his mother, Angela, was discovered pregnant, and so Frank was born shortly afterwards. I lost count of the number of children they had - they just kept popping them out. But about as many died as survived. Living in poor households with poor medical aid, illness was very nearly a death sentence for the young. It seems a miracle that Frank and three of his brothers survived into adulthood when death was ubiquitous. Not only did he lose siblings, but friends his age as well. And adults who had come down with tuberculosis were either dead or coughing up their lungs. Not surprisingly, those dying off in droves were the poor, either because they couldn't work or because they didn't have enough money for anything but food and shelter, if that.

Reading Angela's Ashes, you never get a sense of dreary gloom. Sure, things were bad, but McCourt nonetheless writes about his difficult childhood with a sense of nostalgia. And humor. Lots of humor. You never get the sense of a man who feels sorry for himself, who is trying to make excuses for a possibly later difficult adult life. He describes moments that would drive many people to tears in a way that instead drives them to laughter. The memoir also never aims to preach. Frank is a boy who loves to read, but McCourt never aims to proselytize his own strength of character due to this attribute. It seems to be a way to escape the difficulties of life and see other worlds. In fact, the memoir never really feels like a memoir, as McCourt never makes self-referential comments nor does he point to his future.

One area that would be ripe for self-pity in other memoirs is the topic of McCourt's failure of a father. In other stories, this father would not only be incompetent, but a rotten person. Malachy may not have been able to overcome his alcohol addiction to take better care of his family, but he was not a bad father in all regards. Frank loved his father in the tender way his father regarded the children and his wife and through the stories of Cuchulain his father shared. Frank couldn't help but hate the man who returned home late from the pub, singing songs of Irish nationalism, but still love the tender, loving man beneath the drunkenness.

This is the second memoir by McCourt that I have read. The first was Teacher Man, his last, so I always knew what sort of life he would lead later. Knowing that made this an even more extraordinary read, as it turns out Angela's Ashes is the beginnings of a rags to riches story. That a young boy in some of the worst conditions of poverty could later become a successful teacher and then become rich writing a novel is an amazing feat. Also having read Teacher Man first, I saw a glimpse of a different sort of Frank McCourt, a McCourt who did not view the rest of his adult life with the same kind of nostalgia he gives his childhood here. It's amazing the difference in tone between the two books. In Teacher Man there's a sort of smugness, a narcissism, and poor attempts at humor that made it difficult for me to enjoy. Angela's Ashes seems, then, a surprise success from somebody not quite so full of himself as he would become later. Rather than nostalgia, he viewed his teaching career almost as a wasted life, one made complete only by the success of his memoir. That said, Angela's Ashes is an enjoyable, funny, and sometimes heartbreaking story about a normal, yet extraordinary life.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: Propinquity, by John Macgregor

The word propinquity describes the relationships people make, romantic or otherwise, through shared interests or activities. In other words, one is most likely to form a close bond with somebody they spend a lot of time with. And in the case of the novel, Propinquity, by John Macgregor, there are plenty of close bonds formed, between classmates and lovers. Propinquity's first half is largely about the relations between main character Clive Lean and his school buddies, Lake and Gilberte. A romance also brews between Clive and the lovely Sam. While some may complain these early parts are too much background, they are also the book's most entertaining, with some fun encounters involving Clive inheriting his father's failing business, and an experimental drug trip in medical school. It's the book's last half that draws comparisons to The Da Vinci Code, and this is where the book also, unfortunately, loses my interest.

Clive has ambitions to enter medical school, and the grades to do so as well. His closest buddies also share his ambition, but soon other interests get in their way. Lake has a spiritual longing to discover something that will give his life meaning, so he travels to the Australian country side and interacts with some aboriginal people there. Gilberte also loses interest in medical school and travels to Italy to become a bodyguard. A third friend, whose name escapes me, has more radical, socialist ideas and turns his desires to aid a revolutionary cause in Haiti. This leaves Clive distraught, as his core group of friends leaves him with his increasingly disillusioned goal of achieving a medical degree. The death of his father releases this from him as he inherits his father's business.

The business, however, only lasts so long and Clive is yet again on track to earning his doctorate in medicine, this time in Oxford. Here the true plot of the story begins to unfold, when Clive meets Sam, the daughter of the Dean of the Westminster Abbey. Sam teases Clive with some mystery concealed beneath said abbey, and Clive somehow finds this very intriguing. Unfortunately, Clive's enthusiasm failed to infect me. Macgregor very slowly, painfully slowly, prods this secret out from Sam, though he does, in the meantime, make some very amusing detours.

No doubt, the comparisons to The Da Vinci Code are meant to stir greater interest in Propinquity, which was actually written first, but was recently re-published. Not having read Dan Brown's best-seller, my own comparisons will be limited, but I can say both books have to do with the Catholic church hiding, for thousands of years, some secret that would supposedly transform the entire organization if made known. Unfortunately this is where the book becomes its most tedious. When Sam teases Clive with a sense of mystery, I felt a sense of dread that the novel was about to turn away from what had been making it so much fun.

And indeed it does. Part of the problem is that Macgregor does not clearly reveal what this mystery is, or what is truly at stake if its secrets are released to the public. The characters seem very excited to reveal their new discovery to the public, but their excitement also seems to mask a certain naivete. There have been many attempts to discredit firmly established Christian beliefs, particularly those that seek to disprove events in the Bible, but it makes no difference. Faith is not so easily shaken by claims made by even the most expert of historians and scientists. Such a document as Clive and Sam uncover is more likely to go unnoticed except by a very small minority of scholars. This wouldn't be such a problem, however, if Macgregor had set his sights on something more solid than "gnosis," which he never clearly defines.

Macgregor certainly has talent. It's a rare book that makes me laugh out loud as much as this one did. I can't help but wish Macgregor had continued along the same lines as at the novel's start, but then, I guess, where else would it have to go? Perhaps it's simply that this is not the type of story for me, which delves too heavily into an abstract philosophy that seems to hold no real practical value. In the end this feels like two completely different stories mashed together. The first is about a group of young men seeking themselves during college. The second is an action fantasy drama about toppling a major religious institution's beliefs. Surprisingly it's the first that's the most fun. I'd like more of that one.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Review: In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje

In the Skin of a Lion is a novel that only a narrow audience - those who value poetic prose above all else - will enjoy. It's a novel with very little structure, loose and random plot threads, questionable motivation, and a lack of compelling character development. Time passes quickly and then slowly. The story follows a character randomly only to drop him. There's a feeling that Michael Ondaatje wrote this with great purpose, dabbling a little bit in logging, in dynamite, in romance, in bridge building, in falling nuns, in communism, in terrorism, and a little bit of everything else, but by the end I couldn't help but feel a sense of purposelessness. And maybe that is part of Ondaatje's goal, to show a character attempting to make meaning where none can be found. Or maybe I just don't get it. That's possible; the story didn't intrigue me enough to make that attempt.

The story begins from the perspective of Patrick Lewis as a boy in Canada. He lives with his father, who finds work in livestock and then in logging, where he specializes in dynamite. Some of these early scenes are intriguing in the way they capture the life of a poor family working in extreme cold condition. Ondaatje's eye for detail provide great insight into a cultural world that very few belong to. We feel how difficult life must be, day to day, as loggers are under constant danger of being swept underneath logs floating in the river and drowning. Patrick's father in particular faces danger every time he must clear a log jam with dynamite. There's also the cold. Michigan gets cold, but I doubt it gets as cold as in Patrick's Canada.

Then the novel switches to a bridge builder named Nicholas Temelcoff, a fellow who seems at peace with life, having an innate ability to climb and swing beneath the bridge in the dark. Again, we get a sense of the hard daily labor a man must face. Yet this man, as well as Patrick's father, seems to be a master of his craft. These two approach their work, and their lives, with a contentment, yet it would be difficult to say they are truly happy.

Time passes quickly and we run into Patrick again, chasing after some missing millionaire and falling in love with the millionaire's mistress. This is where things get wonky. First of all, the novel takes us away from Patrick for a fairly extensive amount of time, and then it returns us to him much older. Second of all, too many questions pop up about his new circumstances (how he is able to seduce an actress?) that make the story less believable. Also, why should we care about all of this? Patrick is the least interesting of the novel's characters. He feels more like a blank slate than a fully-fleshed out person. Things happen to him. He does things, sometimes extreme things, only because Ondaatje wills him to do so. Motivation be damned. Bizarre things happen that make the story difficult to believe. Whenever I became enchanted with a character or with a description of a character's working life details, the story would go back to dull Patrick and the strangeness surrounding him.

Had the novel been about Temelcoff or even the thief, Caravaggio, who appears much later, it would have been much more enjoyable. Watching them at work at their craft was a lot of fun. Watching Patrick struggle to attain an identity felt too choppy, especially since the novel does break to show the lives of these other two more fascinating characters. Those who fall in love with the poetic quality of writing will likely enjoy this novel. Those who need a little bit more in terms of story will have trouble finding the motivation to continue reading.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a novel about how people attempt to cope in a cold, harsh world. Don't let the fact that the main character has autism fool you into thinking this is a novel about autism. Author Mark Haddon has admitted to doing little research on autism for the novel. What the novel gives us is a different perspective on life, through the eyes of Christopher Boone, whose condition serves as a sort of tunnel vision lens, yet allows him to see things most people fail to notice. He lives by a set of rules that help him cope with the irrational and chaotic nature of the world. Of course, we all live by some set of rules, some set of guiding principles that allow us to do the same. What makes Christopher different is that while most of us learn to accept the irrationality of life, Christopher is doomed not to.

Christopher likes to interact only with a small set of people. At school he talks with his school mentor, Siobhan, about things he doesn't understand. He lives alone with his father ever since the death of his mother. His mother's death has made him more acquainted with his neighbor, Mrs. Shears, who helps his father out. His routine begins to change, only slightly, when he comes upon Mrs. Shears' dead poodle, stabbed with a garden fork. After an unpleasant encounter with a police officer who dares to touch him, Christopher decides to do some detective work and solve the mystery of the poodle's murder.

Becoming a detective means leaving his safe shell and stepping out of his way to ask people questions. Christopher doesn't much like talking to people because he doesn't understand body language. In fact, Christopher doesn't like a lot of things. He doesn't like the color yellow. It's a bad day when he spots four yellow cars in a row on his way to school. Conversely, he loves the color red, which means that sighting four red cars in a row means it will be a good day. He also doesn't like it when people use facial expressions to communicate because he doesn't know what they mean. He hates the use of metaphor because it confuses him. What Christopher does love is math. He is very logical and will probably be a very successful mathematician. The chapters are numbered by prime numbers rather than in direct sequence. Haddon is so good at convincing us that Christopher exists that it made me wonder whether Christopher is a version of himself, to some extent.

The novel revolves only loosely around the death of Mrs. Shears' poodle because the story, as told in the first person from Christopher's perspective, goes off on numerous tangents. These tangents are often amusing or revealing in some way, and they help explore the mindset of Christopher as well as what he values. Other things that are more important than the death of the poodle happen, but the poodle's murder is significant because it makes Christopher step outside his comfort zone. He appears to be the perfect sleuth, capable of sticking to the facts and not letting his imagination spoil his investigation. He considers all possibilities and eliminates the improbable ones. He even fancies himself a sort of Sherlock Holmes and talks extensively about some of the Holmes novels (as a warning, if you have not read Hound of the Baskervilles, Christopher shamelessly spoils the ending). Yet Christopher lacks an important tool to be a good detective - social recognition. What would be an obvious solution to this investigation for most observers is overlooked by Christopher because he, ironically, fails to put two and two together.

Some have compared Christopher Boone to Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye, and I can see the resemblance. Caulfield, like Christopher, has a narrow view of the world. Where Caulfield sees everyone as phonies, Christopher seems to regard others as intellectually inferior. Both novels make use of the unreliable narrator, in that a reader not making full use of their critical reading skills might be mistaken in believing they are meant to adopt the narrator's viewpoint. However, with Christopher things are made more challenging by the fact that he is an intellectually gifted individual. You may find yourself with a nagging doubt or suspicion about something Christopher hasn't perceived, yet Christopher's undeniable logical intelligence will have you second-guessing yourself.

In Catcher in the Rye, one of the defining moments of how Holden views himself is when he likens himself as a rescuer of children, saving them from running off the edge of a cliff. He believes he holds the key to truth in a world of phonies, yet the reader sees otherwise. Christopher has a similar moment when he compares the way he sees the world to how others see the world. When most people gaze at a field and are asked to describe it, they may mention there were cows and a house and other details, all vaguely described. Christopher, however, will go so far as to tell you how many cows were there and how many had black spots and how many had brown spots and then how many spots each one had. He believes his way is superior, even though Siobhan admits this level of detail would be overwhelming to most. What Christopher misses out on, however, is the beauty of such a field. He takes it all in and simply plugs it into his mathematical brain.

Though the novel is written from Christopher's point of view, and though the reader has plenty of reason to sympathize with him, the character with which I made the greatest emotional connection was the father. The two most poignant moments in the novel involve him. We can sympathize with Christopher because he does suffer, yet his emotional state can be difficult to grasp. This novel does an excellent job of putting readers in the perspective of somebody with autism. However, I kept putting myself in the shoes of Christopher's father, thinking about just how difficult life would be to have to raise a child like Christopher. I mentioned in the first paragraph that the novel is about trying to cope in a difficult world. From Christopher's perspective, we see, in a peripheral way, how his own parents have attempted to cope with raising an autistic child. Raising a child is hard enough, but raising a child who emotionally does not develop the way most people do, who throws violent tantrums when things don't happen a certain way, is a trying experience. Christopher's father is a rare person who is able to do this with love, care, and patience. Not everybody is able to handle the difficulties life throws at them as he does.

The novel is very entertaining, with lots of laugh out loud moments and plenty other thoughtful ones. Christopher dives into all sorts of tangential subjects, but always from his fascinating perspective. The only parts I object to are some repetitive action scenes toward the end, where less detail may have been better. Yet, at the same time, Mark Haddon follows through with the logical impulses of his narrator. It's amazing the way Haddon is able to keep up Christopher's performance, including all the little details that go along with being Christopher. Haddon writes with such a precise style that Christopher is able to come to life as a person all his own. And when we root for Christopher to achieve his goals, we're rooting for an imperfect person to be successful in a difficult world, because if there's hope for Christopher, there's hope for any of us.