Literary Fiction, Wright, Richard

Review of Native Son

Image result for native son richard wrightOnly two pages into Native Son, I knew that I would love this book. The lush prose and dynamic dialogue sucked me in.

Published in 1940, Native Son by Richard Wright follows Bigger Thomas from the poverty-stricken Black Belt of Chicago’s South Side to the Cook County courthouse where he awaits his sentence for the killing of a white woman named Mary Dalton. The Daltons are an upper middle class white family who hire Bigger as a chauffeur because of their pity for African Americans. Bigger has a history of delinquency. At the start of the novel, he organizes a bank robbery with his friends. But despite his background, or maybe because of it, Mr. Dalton hires Bigger to drive Mary to the university. Unfortunately, Mary is not interested in school. Instead, she introduces Bigger to her Communist boyfriend Jan. Mary and Jan even invite Bigger to eat with them at a restaurant in the Black Belt. But as Bigger drives Mary home alone, he begins to feel uncomfortable in her presence. That very night, Bigger commits the fateful crime at the center of Native Son.

The death of Mary Dalton is only the first of many crimes Bigger commits during his escape. Bigger Thomas is a true-to-life criminal. Most novels I’ve read that address racial injustice center on an unjustly-accused, innocent black character. But Bigger is highly unlikeable. Even when it is clear that race played a central role in shaping Bigger’s character, Wright does not attempt to exonerate Bigger from guilt. Instead, he interrogates the nature of this guilt, exposing the myriad ways in which White America contributed to the creation of Bigger Thomas.

Native Son is a classic of African American fiction. Its analysis of racism in the criminal justice system is as relevant as ever. The last fourth of the book is, admittedly, a bit preachy, but Wright’s novel doubles as a manifesto. I expected the preachiness. My only criticism has to do with the novel’s treatment of women – particularly black women. There is a black woman in the novel who does not receive the attention she deserves. While I understand that the story is told from Bigger’s perspective, I cannot excuse the way Wright handled Bessie’s story. Her story was almost made out to be less important than Bigger’s. Considering the circumstances, I find that unacceptable. Consequently, I gave the book 4.5 instead of 5 stars.

If you’ve read Native Son, let me know what you thought.

Literary Fiction, Tournier, Michel

Review of The Golden Droplet

Image result for the golden droplet tournierLa goutte d’or (The Golden Droplet) by Michel Tournier follows Idriss from the Saharan oasis of Tabelbala to Marseille, France. One day, a French couple arrives in a Land Rover, and the woman with blond hair takes a picture of Idriss. Because photography is taboo in this village, Idriss feels a strong desire to retrieve his photo from the blond haired woman.

Only a short distance away from Tabelbala is a major Algerian city. Everything is different there. The natural history museum has an exhibit dedicated to the Sahara. Idriss knows that his village is on display, but none of it feels familiar. Most of the Algerians at the museum are just as ignorant of life in the oasis as was the blond haired woman who took Idriss’ picture.

Photography is front and center in this novel. Tournier explores the relationship between portrait-making and colonialism. Idriss is a model everywhere he goes. Nearly everyone he meets thinks he represents “foreignness”, “orientalism”, and the Maghreb region.

Idriss’ photo is at once specific and universal. He must have two forms of identification with him at all times, but the people he meets think Idriss represents an entire race. Indeed, mannequin artists decide to make a mannequin of Idriss’ profile for a French department store with a large North African clientele.

But the racism goes both ways. Every French woman Idriss meets resembles the woman with the blond hair. He wants to ask all of them whether they have Idriss’ picture. In Tournier’s novel, the “other” is acknowledged only as a portrait. A picture is a flat and lifeless reproduction of one moment in a person’s life. It can’t represent the entirety of a person’s identity, let alone every individual in a particular group. Idriss looks at his government IDs, but he can’t recognize himself in them. He feels like the photos have taken away some of his humanity. He is objectified and commodified. Most terrifying is the realization that his image may outlive him.

In The Golden Droplet, most scenes are linked to one another through “face” imagery. Idriss’ pilgrimage to Marseille is not only a journey of self-discovery but one of self-forgetfulness. He feels like an actor in a play. A number of characters in the novel reflect on the human face and what it represents

Unfortunately, Tournier is way too heavy handed with his imagery. From the very beginning, the reader knows the message the author is trying to convey. Sometimes, Tournier paints a picture (pun intended) and then proceeds to explain it to us. The last third of the book is overwhelmingly didactic. It leaves nothing to the imagination.

In general, though, Tournier’s novel is both thought-provoking and enjoyable. It is one of the first books I’ve read that has explored the hostility between ethnic groups in Algeria. If you are interested in modern post-colonial French literature, I recommend The Golden Droplet. It certainly would help to read Tournier’s novel alongside Emmanuel Lévinas’ philosophy. Lévinas had quite a lot to say about faces.

Kafka Franz, Literary Fiction, Read-Along

The Trial Read-Along (Chapter 4 – End)

17692The second part of The Trial was much more thought-provoking than the first part. When Joseph K. attempts to dismiss his trial as a minor inconvenience, his uncle comes up with a plan to fight the court. He introduces K. to an attorney who agrees take his case. Unfortunately, the lawyer does absolutely nothing to help K. fight the court. Next, K. visits the court painter Titorelli who also promises to help the defendant. The painter describes in detail the three kinds of acquittals possible. The best K. can hope for is a temporary acquittal by the lower court. The higher court can overturn the rulings of the lower court. Titorelli has never known a case in which a defendant’s case has been permanently dropped.

While The Trial is clearly a commentary on the corrupt nature of the justice system, the discussion about the three types of acquittals increasingly convinced me that the story was also about metaphysical matters. There is something quite Calvinistic about K.’s world. It seems as if he has been predestined for condemnation. He cannot defend himself or do anything to change his sentence. The acquittals discussion reminded me of the scholastic philosophy I studied in a medieval philosophy course last semester.

And then there’s the parable of the doorkeeper. It seems to be addressing in part the free will/determinism question. While the man for whom the door was made can never pass through the door, he is always free to move about. He chooses to remain in front of the door until his death.

First of all, the free man is superior to the bound man. Now the man is in fact free: he can go wherever he wishes, the entrance to the Law alone is denied to him, and this only by one person, the doorkeeper. If he sits on the stool at the side of the door and spends the rest of his life there, he does so of his free will; the story mentions no element of force. The doorkeeper, on the other hand, is bound to his post by his office; he is not permitted to go elsewhere outside, but to all appearances he is not permitted to go inside either, even if he wishes to.

Paradoxically, the doorkeeper is less free than the man because he is required to guard the door at all times. The doorkeeper, as the priest who’s telling the story points out, does not know what is beyond the door. The man chose to renounce his freedom by sitting near the door for the rest of his life. He could have done so many other things, but he chose to fight the prohibition.

How this parable relates to the end of the story is not clear. After leaving the cathedral, K. is arrested and executed. Maybe the parable is about humanity’s search for justice and a meaning to life. Whatever is beyond the door (the meaning of life? Justice?) is inaccessible to the man, so why does he remain by the door?

Before he’s executed, K. realizes that he has always been and always will be identified with guilt.

With failing sight K. saw how the men drew near his face, leaning cheek-to-cheek to observe the verdict. “Like a dog!” he said; it seemed as though the shame was to outlive him.

But what about the executioners? Did they choose to execute K., or did the Law force them to do it? If the executioners are like the priest’s doorkeeper, the executioners are no less determined by outside forces. If K. had accepted his guilt without protest, would he have experienced more freedom in his life? We will never know.

This story was the perfect Halloween read! I am not satisfied with Kafka’s worldview, but there is so much injustice in the world. Why do bad things happen to good people? Some people are like Joseph K., defenseless victims of an unjust world. If there is any meaning to the suffering of the innocent, we certainly can’t know it in this life.

Kafka Franz, Literary Fiction, Read-Along

The Trial Read-Along (Chapters 1-3)

17692I am reading The Trial by Franz Kafka with Silvia Cachia. Her reflection on the first three chapters is here.

Because I am reading The Trial on Kindle, I am not sure what parts belong to the first three chapters. I am currently in the chapter where K. tells his uncle about the trial, so I will discuss everything before that. A quick glance at Silvia’s post (which I will read thoroughly once I post my own reflection) confirms that I will not be spoiling anything that she hasn’t read yet.

My Thoughts

Having read a few pieces of what we now call “flash fiction” by Franz Kafka, I know that Kafka is an existential writer with a particular obsession with the injustice of the world. K., the protagonist of The Trial, is arrested one morning for an unknown crime. The authorities never tell him why he’s arrested, and they break into K.’s house without a search warrant. In fact, it seems like no one knows his crime. Every one is simply doing the job he or she has been assigned.

Although he is arrested, K. is free to go to work. It looks like nothing has changed in his life, but he has to attend court meetings. When he does go to court, however, he learns that there isn’t a trial. There are spectators, but he isn’t charged with anything. Often, K. meets people in the most random locations.

The book seems perfect for October. The atmosphere of this story reminds me of a haunted house. Different rooms contain different terrors. At the bank where he works, K. finds two of his colleagues in a long-forgotten broom closet. They are facing corporal discipline for their involvement in K.’s arrest. It’s all so weird and dizzying. And that’s the point. K. has entered a maze that he can’t leave. No one chooses to (or perhaps can) help him.

In this first part, I was struck by the way this insanity has already affected K. At first, K. tries to appeal to justice, but he is ignored by everyone he condemns. No one cares. Later, he becomes the one who is deaf to injustice. His colleagues are being flogged in a broom closet, but, instead of helping them, he simply closes the door to drown out the sound of their screaming. K., it seems, has begun to ignore injustice. His uncle is horrified to learn that K. has been arrested, but K. tells him that none of it really matters. After all, he is free to go to work.

Even though I have only read 30% of the book, I feel like I have read hundreds of pages. The story is very repetitive and dizzying. Clearly, Kafka had a real problem with bureaucracy.

I faced my own “trial” last month when I tried to get my car registered in Pennsylvania. One clerk told me one thing, and another clerk told me something different. I got false information from a third clerk, so I ended up spending over $40 to get the documentation I needed. Grrr. Thankfully, the license and tag offices were actual working offices. I eventually got my car registered. It could have been worse :P.

 

Greene, Graham, Literary Fiction

Review of The Power and the Glory

Image result for the power and the gloryWhat was it about?

A cleric known as the “whisky priest” is the last surviving priest in Mexico. Despite his reputation, the “whisky priest” secretly hears confessions and administers the Sacrament to the faithful in Mexico. The Lieutenant, an inquisitor for the socialist state, considers the Church to be the greatest threat to the revolution. What has the Church ever done to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor? Priests seem to serve the poor only so that the Church looks good; they have no desire to abolish the social hierarchy. As long as the poor remain poor, the Church is needed. And look at the priests’ lifestyles!

The “whisky priest”, on his end, doesn’t really know why anybody would waste their time pursuing him. He is comforted by the idea that, despite his sins, he can administer the sacraments, but the “whisky priest” is not martyr material. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene explores the lines that divide saint from sinner and liberator from oppressor.

What did I think of it?

I read this book more than six months ago, but it had such a great impression on me that I think about it nearly every day. The questions Greene deals with in The Power and the Glory are questions that come up a lot in public discourse. How should poverty be addressed? Is religion the opium of the people as Karl Marx claimed, or can it play a role in social justice? The book also explores sainthood and martyrdom. Should a person as sinful as the “whisky priest” be considered a martyr? What cause is he dying for if he is? If you like character studies, you will enjoy The Power and the Glory. The prose is gorgeous. I am not surprised that it is included on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time.

Favorite Quotes

“It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy–a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all.”

“How often the priest had heard the same confession–Man was so limited: he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater the glory lay around the death; it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or civilization–it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”

 

Literary Fiction, Woolf, Virginia

Review of Orlando: A Biography

Image result for orlando a biography harcourtWhat was it about? 

At the start of the novel, Orlando is a teenage page to Elizabeth I in 16th century England. He serves as an ambassador while writing poetry and plays. He even falls in love with a Russian princess named Sasha. At the age of 30, he suddenly transforms into a 19th century woman. As a woman in Victorian England, Orlando faces limitations that she had not faced as a man. Her loves and interests remain the same, but she struggles to find her voice. Even as a man, Orlando didn’t know how to write good poetry. What does good poetry look like anyway? Who gets to decide? As a woman, Orlando wonders if she should even pursue writing. Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf is a nonstandard Bildungsroman replete with meditations on history, historiography, time, memory, gender, sexuality, love, and literature.

What did I think of it?

What is a biography? That is one of the major questions explored in Orlando: A Biography. Is a biography a slavishly literal retelling of a person’s life? If not, what are the details most important in a person’s life? Perhaps, a biography is never really a history of a single individual. But what sources do we use, and most importantly, how do we interpret them? Orlando writes dozens of works, but what do/can they tell us about the author’s identity or the author’s political, social, and literary context? Historiography is a field that particularly interests me. Memory is not simply the recollection of past events:

Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind. Instead of being a single, downright, bluff piece of work of which no man need feel ashamed, our commonest deeds are set about with a fluttering and flickering of wings, a rising and falling of lights.

Life experience and authorial intent influence the understanding of past events.

Orlando is quite an enigmatic character. At the start of the novel, Orlando is a boy but becomes a woman at the age of 30. Therefore, gender and sexuality are prominent themes in this biography. Virginia Woolf wrote about gender as a social construct almost a century ago. She challenged the belief that gender is a binary:

Many people, taking this into account, and holding that such a change of sex is against nature, have been at great pains to prove (1) that Orlando had always been a woman, (2) that Orlando is at this moment a man.

Orlando’s love for literature and Sasha remain constants, but society dictates what people of different genders can and cannot do. As a trans/gender nonconforming individual, Orlando struggles to fit into the societies of early modern and modern England.But does it matter what people think? Where does individual identity stop and social influence begin?

Orlando: A Biography was the perfect book to read for The Literary Others reading challenge hosted this month by Adam @ Roof Beam Reader. If you have had difficulty reading Woolf’s works in the past, I recommend Orlando. It is more straightforward than her other works. Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style allows her to say things that simply cannot be communicated as powerfully in traditional prose. This is the second of her novels that I’ve read (the first was Mrs. Dallowayand it simply reinforced my conviction that Woolf is one of the greatest prose writers in the English-speaking world.

Favorite Quotes

And she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered, lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head.

Cather, Willa, Literary Fiction

Review of O Pioneers!

Image result for o, pioneersWhat was it about?

After the death of her parents, Alexandra Bergson, a Swedish immigrant, becomes responsible for the well-being of her three brothers and for the running of the family homestead. Her friend Carl Linstrum suddenly leaves Nebraska for Chicago in hopes of making a fortune. When he returns after 13 years, Alexandra learns that Carl is on his way to Alaska. He has never found his place in the world. He is not alone. Marie Shabata is in a love-less marriage, and Ivar has earned the name “Crazy Ivar” for his outlandish mystical views. Faced with so many responsibilities, Alexandra does not have time to tend to her own personal needs. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather explores love and friendship in the beautiful but unforgiving Nebraska plains.

What did I think of it?

What can I say? Willa Cather has produced yet another literary masterpiece. Like My ÁntoniaO Pioneers! chronicles the lives of immigrants from Scandinavia. In fact, O Pioneers! and My Antonia are the first and third books in Cather’s Great Plains Trilogy. The Nebraska plains are stunningly beautiful, but the immigrants who live in the region have only one thing on their mind – survival. Alexandra is forced to take on many responsibilities as a young woman, but she and her friends are constantly scrutinized by her two older brothers. The woman runs the homestead, but it never really belongs to her. Alexandra takes care of everyone else, but no one takes care of her. People marry for purely economic reasons, so romance, if it exists at all, is found outside of marriage. Willa Cather is one of the three most poetic writers I’ve ever encountered (the other two being Marilynne Robinson and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry).She can pack so much emotion into a phrase. While I thought My Ántonia was a more powerful work, the female characters in O Pioneers! are more compelling. If you love character studies, you will enjoy Cather’s novels.

Favorite Quote

“There was about Alexandra something of the impervious calm of the fatalist, always disconcerting to very young people, who cannot feel that the heart lives at all unless it is still at the mercy of storms; unless its strings can scream to the touch of pain.”