Archive for February, 2010

Expensive People

Expensive People (1968)
by Joyce Carol Oates
256 pages
Fawcett Crest


This is a novel that looks forward to an event for almost its whole length, and then when it finally happens in the last few pages…you end up not being sure that it happened at all.

The novel is narrated by Richard Everett, now in his late teens, who looks back on his childhood, and specifically the events that led to his being a murderer at about age 11. He is the child of a financially successful, older father who is often away on business, and a mother who is a promising writer of literary fiction. The child is emotionally isolated from both parents, as they move around from one anonymous wealthy suburb to another, and Richard navigates private schools, superficial friendships with other privileged children, and spying on his parents cocktail parties.  The relationship with the mother is especially strained, as she appears somewhat mentally unstable, and has suddenly left the family several times.

It’s interesting how Oates gets into the mind of an emotionally troubled young boy, and inside a upper-class family, since I’m pretty sure her personal experience is nowhere close to this sphere of American society. The mother character, the writer, is perhaps the closest to Oates, and Oates even goes to the point of including one of her previously published stories in the novel as a story written by the mother. A bit disturbing, as the mother is clearly the worst character in this story. Incidentally, though the old paperback cover above has its trashy charm, it doesn’t have much to do with the novel itself – the mother is described as having short black hair, while the son, presumably the figure in the background, is supposed to wear glasses and be severely overweight. I always wonder how many cover artists actually read the books they work on.

A recent cover

In the end I’d say this is a decent minor work by Oates. The story is well-told and absorbing, but ultimately not that vast or deep. The question left for the reader is if the narrator actually did commit the murder, or is he lying about it as a form of psychological self-protection.  Since we have nothing to go by but an unreliable narrator, and some of this other accounts near the end of the novel begin to be very fragmented and obviously incoherent, it can always be up for debate, but my own interpretation is that the narrator, contrary to his statement all through the book, is not actually a murderer.

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I’m currently reading Joyce Carol Oates’ Expensive People (review up in a day or two), and as I was just doing some browsing about her online, I found out that not only had she re-married after her husband’s death in 2008, but she’s selling her long-time home. After reading her descriptions of her writing habits and seeing several photos of her at home, it’s interesting to get a look at the place where she did so much work, and the adjoining woods that she talked about.

I”m a bit surprised at the almost mod-style feel of the place.  Those floor-to-ceiling windows must cost a fortune to heat in the winter.

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The Ball and the Cross

The Ball and the Cross (1906)
by G.K. Chesterton
192 pages
Dover Publications


This allegorical screwball comedy kicks off as a naive Catholic and a naive atheist encounter each other in London, and both are so enraged and delighted to find someone with earnest belief that they almost immediately challenge each other to a duel to the death.  However, most of society cannot even believe that they would take life as seriously as that, and the two heroes need to constantly dodge officers of the law and other members of society who are mostly uninterested in the duel except that they wish that it would not take place and disturb their apathy.

The inspiration for the novel  was a debate that Chesterton had with an atheist in the press.  As the two fictional combatants, MacIan and Turnbull, fight their constantly-interrupted duel across land and sea, they develop a friendship based on mutual respect for each other’s honesty and integrity of character, and find more in common with each other than with many others they encounter who are wishy-washy about their beliefs, or whose words and actions go in entirely opposite directions.  In the latter stages of the novel both MacIan and Turnbull are locked up in an asylum run by a figure that symbolizes both Satan and the rising tide of communism, wishing to erase both God and the integrity of the individual from society.

The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, around which much of the early action takes place, and whose crowning ball and cross form a key symbol of the novel.

I thought the novel bogged down a bit in the second half, and even Chesterton, reflecting on it later in life, thought it didn’t fully deliver on the potential of its plot.  This edition features a foreword by mathematician and philosopher Martin Gardner, who makes the interesting point that, in the modern world, even when public figures state their religion, we do not expect them to actually believe in what they say, and though they may be asked about things like their sexual relations, what they believe to be the purpose and ultimate end of human life is considered off-limits.

Among the fun and games and flights of word-craft, Chesterton warns us about a world where the noble aim of tolerance somehow slides into a lukewarm miasma where the idea that someone would actually die or kill for what they believe to be true becomes ridiculous not because what that person believes is false, but because we do not want to be so risky or unfashionable as to take the chance to believe in anything.

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The Adventures of Augie March

The Adventures of Augie March (1953)
by Saul Bellow
607 pages
The Viking Press


The computer age, with manuscripts composed and edited in word processors, and sometimes directly electronically submitted for publishing, has also been talked about as the death of the editor.  Freed from a typewriter, the modern author doesn’t necessarily have to re-type his manuscript over and over just to make a few changes, and sometimes the improvements and tight narrative that develop over successive drafts is lost.  But, to demonstrate that the void of good editorial oversight existed long before the personal computer, we have books like The Adventures of Augie March.  What could have been a decent and mildly amusing 200-or-so page novel is instead a 600+ page sprawling, directionless, pretentious, pointless mess.

I think the question that came most to my mind is Why? – Why would a writer write a book like this, that is so lacking in introspection, reflection, or the development of character? Why write so much without saying anything? Why was I reading this? I suppose just because I’d enjoyed the other Bellow books I’ve read, and I don’t think it’s a good habit to quit on too many books partway through.

Some of the sequences in Chicago were effective at evoking a location, and there were a few good turns of phrase, but this was by far overwhelmed by indulgent wordplay, scenes and characters that went nowhere, and the frustration of dealing with a main character that, even after such a long novel focused on his life, seems just like a faint mist rather than a solid character.  A really disappointing, tedious read, and it’s stuff like this that gives modern literature a bad name.  It must have been boring as hell just to write, and the author seems to give no consideration to the readers, to offer them anything interesting or amusing or even simply not to waste their time.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
by James M. Cain
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
116 pages


This is an almost archetypal example of hard-boiled fiction. You have a desperate man and an amoral woman, and when they get together they’re much worse than they could be on their own.  They commit a crime and think are free from it, but there’s no getting away from the things you’ve done, and they just sink deeper into trouble.  What looked like getting away with murder was only cosmic justice delayed for a brief moment filled with the apprehension of doom.

John Garfield and Lana Turner in 1946 film adaptation

The narrator is Frank Chambers, a drifter in his twenties who shows up penniless at a small, isolated gas station and restaurant run by a Greek immigrant who asks him to stay on as a helper.

The Greek has a younger wife, Cora, who is resentful of her marriage, where she feels she traded away too much of what else life has to offer for her current dull stability and security.  Frank and Cora begin an intense affair, and soon decide they need Cora’s husband out of the way if they want to have a future together.

The 1981 adaptation: lovely photography, but somehow less effective

This book has two notable Hollywood adaptations, in 1946 in a film-noir styled effort, which I think is the better of the two, and a production from 1981 starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, which tried to capture more of the grittiness and sexuality of the book, but I didn’t find quite as effective.  Reading this novel, I also realized what a strong influence it was on the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, especially in the death-row confessional framing story, and the theme of fate coming back around if you avoid it the first time.

This was the first I’ve read by Cain, but it was great, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his works.  Dark, nasty, and wonderful.

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