Category: prose fiction

Lewis Carroll, the Alice Novels, and Sensible Nonsense

`As to poetry, you know,’ said Humpty Dumpty, stretching out one of his great hands, `I can repeat poetry as well as other folk, if it comes to that — ‘
`Oh, it needn’t come to that!’ Alice hastily said, hoping to keep him from beginning.
`The piece I’m going to repeat,’ he went on without noticing her remark,’ was written entirely for your amusement.’
Alice felt that in that case she really ought to listen to it, so she sat down, and said `Thank you’ rather sadly.

When it gets late in the year and with Christmas coming soon, I always find myself in a nostalgic, and somewhat lazy, mood. It’s a time when my reading goes back to old favourites, and these past couple weeks I’ve revisited a couple of my favourite novels from yesteryear, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Now, I went through The Annotated Alice, which is my favourite edition of the novels, and in the introduction editor Martin Gardner makes what seems, at a glance, a startling claim: “The fact is that Carroll’s nonsense is not nearly as random and pointless as it seems to a modern American child who tries to read the Alice books. One says ‘tries’ because the time is past when a child under fifteen, even in England, can read Alice with the same delight as gained from, say, The Wind in the Willows or The Wizard of Oz. […] It is only because adults […] continue to relish the Alice books that they are assured of immortality.”

There are two claims here, so let’s start with the first: are the Alice novels really no longer children’s books? To be honest, I didn’t read them as a child, but first read them when I was about fifteen, coincidentally the age Gardner mentions above, though I do remember liking Disney’s adaptation of them. I can say that it’s not hard to find editions of the novel aimed at children, or at least older children, as well as at least one alphabet book. Gardner says that “Children today are bewildered and sometimes frightened by the nightmarish atmosphere of Alice’s dreams.” The books are surprisingly violent in parts and almost every character is a jerk to some degree, with the White Knight (very likely a stand-in for Carroll himself) and perhaps the Cheshire Cat as the only exceptions, but I’d hardly call either Wonderland or the Looking-Glass world “nightmarish,” and how frightened a child is would depend on the child. I’d have probably loved it.

It is true that children today won’t catch much of the referential humour, but recognising the source of Carroll’s various song parodies and such isn’t critical to enjoying the parody, and even if a reader misses one joke, there are so many throughout the books that it won’t be long until he comes to another one he may enjoy. Take, for example, the parody “You Are Old, Father William,” which Alice repeats for the Caterpillar:

`You are old, Father William,’ the young man said,
`And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head–
Do you think, at your age, it is right?’

`In my youth,’ Father William replied to his son,
`I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.’

`You are old,’ said the youth, `as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door–
Pray, what is the reason of that?’

`In my youth,’ said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
`I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment–one shilling the box–
Allow me to sell you a couple?’

That’s the first half. Do you recognise the source? Probably not, but it doesn’t really matter. Carroll himself, as the narrator, even shows some awareness that he’s writing for a young audience. During the trial at the end of Wonderland, for example, we have this incident, with authorial commentary:

Here one of the guinea-pigs cheered, and was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court. (As that is rather a hard word, I will just explain to you how it was done. They had a large canvas bag, which tied up at the mouth with strings: into this they slipped the guinea-pig, head first, and then sat upon it.)

`I’m glad I’ve seen that done,’ thought Alice. `I’ve so often read in the newspapers, at the end of trials, “There was some attempts at applause, which was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court,” and I never understood what it meant till now.’

Some young children probably would be disturbed at stuffing guinea pigs into a sack and sitting on them, even if done by other animals about the same size as a guinea pig, but this is certainly no grislier than many fairy tales, at least in their traditional forms.

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Tales of Mystery and Imagination

It’s October and Halloween is just around the corner, so now’s a perfect time to bring out Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Not the Alan Parsons Project album, though that’s good, too, but Calla Editions’ reprint of the classic collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.

Now, among the authors typically assigned for high school English, Poe stands out a bit from other members of the literary canon because, though many other canonical authors wrote for popular audiences, Poe’s stories come across as essentially pulp. It revels in the macabre, often hinges on suspense, and he’s primarily known for horror, and that genre is known for getting snubbed by critics. Most of his stories, because they sometimes do rely on the unknown, don’t benefit from re-reading like most great works, and Poe himself was strongly opposed to didactic fiction, so there aren’t many lessons to take from him, besides things like “Don’t bury your sister unless you’re absolutely certain that she’s dead,” or “Never bet the devil your head.” So what’s he doing on lists of canonical authors?

Simply, because he’s the master of this type of fiction.…

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The Man in the High Castle (75 Books LXI)

I first read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle back in college, and at the time I loved it. The recent hype around Amazon’s adaptation of the novel made me think of it again, and I decided to re-read it to see how it holds up.

Overall, it’s still very good. The setting is 1962 with an obvious alternate history premise where the Axis Powers won the Second World War, with Germany occupying the Eastern United States, Japan the Western, with a more-or-less autonomous zone between them. How this apparently came about is plausible enough, though I must say that some of the things the Nazis have been up to are rather far-fetched. They apparently have a space programme going to Mars, have drained the Mediterranean, and have wiped out most of Africa (though something apparently went wrong with this project, but details are never explained). They’ve only just invented television, though, so reality has the advantage in idiot box technology.

Anyway, most of the story takes place in Japan-occupied San Francisco. Dick could’ve turned this into a propaganda novel and made it an outright dystopia, but the main problem for white Americans is the loss of confidence accompanying being an occupied nation; blacks and Jews do, however, have bigger problems, though much less so in Japanese territory than German. One sees this most in Robert Childan, who runs a shop selling American antiques and collectibles to Japanese clients. He’s constantly fretting about how to deal with his customers, how to show proper respect, and so on, and at one point feels guilty for selling his country’s art as curiosities to foreigners. In one interesting scene, he goes to visit a prospective client, and even speaks in a noticeably Japanified manner. When he offers this customer and his wife a gift, for example, he says, “Bagatelle for you. To display fragment of the relaxation and enjoyment I feel in being here.” This sounds like a student’s understandable-but-awkward attempts at conversing in a new language, not the speech of a native-born American.

One major theme of the book is uncertainty about what’s real and what’s not, which Dick also covered in other works like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” but it’s more fully developed here. Childan discovers that many of his products are counterfeits, two different characters have secret identities, not counting a Jewish character who’s had surgery and a name change to pass as white, and most importantly the ending, which I won’t spoil, calls the reality of everything else in the novel into question in an extremely metafictional way.

It was that ending that really sold me on the novel back in college, though it’s so out of left field that it’s more clever than satisfying as a conclusion to the story. In fact, one possible criticism of the novel is that this conclusion is only known to one character, Juliana, and the story could probably have starred only her. If Dick had written the story only about Juliana, completely writing out the other characters except for some references to her ex-husband, the story would still be complete and thematically coherent. I’m glad the other characters are there because I enjoy their stories a lot and they do expand on the themes, but strictly speaking they could be considered almost as an “expanded universe” for the novel. I don’t consider this a problem, really, it just means that the plot isn’t as tightly constructed as it could be. The only other problem is that I don’t buy Juliana’s behaviour near the climax of the novel with Joe Cinnadella, but this is only one scene in an otherwise-excellent book.

So, High Castle is just solid, A-level fiction, and it’s still one of my favourite novels. Even if you’re not generally interested in alternate history stories, this one is well worth the time to read.…

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The Castle (75 Books – XX)

Is it fair to criticise a book that the author left unfinished at his death? Well, it was published, so I suppose so.

Most of Franz Kafka’s The Castle doesn’t really feel unfinished, anyway. There are a few spots that could use some editing, I suppose, but I wouldn’t have guessed that the author died before completing it until the book stops. That’s probably the main problem, really, which is hardly Kafka’s fault – though there is a note at the end of my audiobook edition about how Kafka intended the novel to end, the manuscript we have just stops in the middle. I sense that the story was likely nearing a conclusion, but obviously it’s still frustrating to have a story just stop with no conclusion at all.

Not that I mind the novel ending soon, so much; it started getting tedious to listen through well before the stop. The majority of the novel consists of the protagonist, K., going from conversation to conversation trying to sort out his position in this town where he was summoned to work as a land surveyor, only to find that this was likely a mistake. One problem is that most of these dialogues take the same basic form; one character relates some event, interprets it, the other says, essentially, “Ah, that’s what you think it means, but actually it means this…” Conveying the tedium of K.’s efforts is part of the intended effect, but unfortunately Kafka may have succeeded a little too well.

Also, I may have missed something here, but it’s not entirely clear to me why K. can’t just leave the town, aside from stubbornness. He talks about the difficult journey to get there, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he’s not going to be able to work as a land surveyor, and as far as I can tell there’s nothing keeping him there. I’d assumed early on that he must have a hidden reason for wanting to stay, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Perhaps Kafka planned to add some explanation later, but I can only take the novel as it is now.

I listened to this in an edition published by Naxos Audiobooks, and read by Allan Corduner, who does a fine job narrating. He’s actually the first narrator I’ve encountered whose work I’d listen to just because he’s the narrator. My only problem, and this is very much a minor issue, is that the main character’s name (or initial, I suppose) is pronounced with the German name for the letter, “kah,” instead of the English “kay,” so it took me a while to figure out what his “name” actually is. Everything else is fine, though, and the narration was probably the highlight of the book.…

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The Picture of Dorian Gray (75 Books – XIII)

Another audiobook, this time Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, published by Blackstone Audio and narrated by Simon Vance.

Now, when I wrote about Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore, I criticised the author for being too eager to show off how intelligent he is by name-dropping famous musicians and such at every opportunity. Wilde goes much farther, as a large part of the novel consists of long conversations that don’t seem to have much purpose beyond giving Wilde an opportunity to show the reader how clever he is, or filling a chapter describing the various musical or gemstone collections his protagonist acquires and making sure we all know how much research he did in the lore of these things. To be fair, Wilde is genuinely clever, and his dialogues are often amusing, but they make the novel longer than necessary and quickly begin to feel tedious.

Despite this, though, the story of literature’s second-most-famous Faustian bargain is engaging from beginning to end. I suspect that this story may have been better served as a stage play, though, since most of the action occurs either in dialogue or relatively simple actions. This would also have forced Wilde to trim the dialogues down, probably for the better – I remember several lines from The Importance of Being Earnest, and don’t recall it getting anywhere near as tedious as Dorian.

Simon Vance’s narration was solid throughout, though his upper-class British accents for some of the minor characters were a little too stereotypical and cartoony; the major characters all sounded about perfect.…

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Kafka on the Shore (75 Books – X)

The one benefit of having a very long commute to work each day is that it allows one to get through a lot of audiobooks and podcasts. Not that I actually listen to a lot of audiobooks, admittedly, mainly because I like to mark up my books and share interesting passages on twitter as I go. They do benefit from professional narration, though, like a radio play, and poetry especially benefits from being read out loud. Of course, audiobooks are also a distraction while driving, though if I do get into an auto accident at least I’ll go out listening to something good.

Anyway, Kafka on the Shore is the first book I’ve read (listened to? whatever) by Murakami Haruki. The book starts with a fifteen-year-old boy running away from home, and at first one thinks this will be a realistic story about a runaway. By the time one gets to the old man who talks with cats and fish raining from the sky it’s pretty clear that this isn’t that sort of novel, though perhaps it does qualify as magical realism, since these things are dealt with straightforwardly and relatively realistically. The boy, who takes the name “Kafka,” takes up about half the novel in first-person narration, while the intertwined other half has a third-persona narrator, focusing on the old man, Nakata, and his backstory.…

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula Is Surprisingly Boring

Once in a while, I come across a work of fiction that should be better than it is, and unfortunately Bram Stoker’s Dracula fits firmly into that category. The premise carries the novel through, and the story does have some strong points, but Stoker does a couple of things that undermine the whole work.

The first major problem is that Stoker wrote this as an epistolary novel. I believe this style used to be much more common than it is now, but was already long past its prime when Stoker wrote Dracula, and good riddance. Ideally, the epistolary style adds a sense of realism, making the reader feel like he’s a researcher going through primary documents, rather than reading an artificially constructed narrative. Since much of Dracula is essentially a mystery story, this approach does serve the plot well.…

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Associations of The Dissociation of Haruhi Suzumiya

The American release of Tanigawa Nagaru’s Haruhi Suzumiya novels are in the home stretch, with the recent release of The Dissociation of Haruhi Suzumiya. It’s the first of a two-part story, to be concluded in the next and last novel, so I’ll hold off on a full review. There were, however, a few things I found interesting with this one.

The most obvious feature of this novel is that the narrative splits halfway through, and what occurs over the next few days differs significantly between the two versions. Though there is some overlap between the two, the differences aren’t subtle like, say, the “Endless Eight” story arc from a few volumes back. I don’t see any hint as to how these two parallel timelines may relate to each other, except that Kyon, our intrepid narrator, does mention not having encountered a slider yet near the beginning of the book. Is it time for one to finally appear?

Another thing is that every member of the SOS Brigade now has a counterpart, including Haruhi. The newly introduced Sasaki makes an interesting foil for her, though it’s not apparent at first that they have anything in common. Sasaki is far more reserved, formal, and logical-thinking than Haruhi. However, I suspect that Sasaki shares Haruhi’s dissatisfaction with how the world isn’t quite amazing. In a conversation Kyon remembers having with her a couple of years prior, she mentions that “Reality is not constructed the way your favorite movies, TV shows, novels, or comics are. And it’s unsatisfying.” She goes on to explain why fiction and reality can’t operate in the same way (and as a side note, her speech reminds me somewhat of Koizumi’s digressions), and later on she also says “I always want to be rational and logical, no matter the time or place. To accept reality as it is, emotional or sentimental thinking is nothing more than an obstruction.”

She’s so formal, though, that I suspect that this is just a mask, and other people sense this. Kunikida talks to Kyon about her briefly, and comments, “[W]hen people call me strange, I don’t understand it. But she does understand [when people call her ‘strange’], and she fits herself into that frame. I get the sense that she’s very careful not to go past its edges.” Why does she do this? My guess is that she’s had the same realisation of how mundane the world is, and how she’s a tiny part of it, but whereas Haruhi’s reaction is to rebel against the world, completely disregarding what others think, she’s decided to simply accept the world as it is.

Is one approach better than the other? I’d guess that that question will factor heavily in the next book, and I’m looking forward to reading what sort of answer Tanigawa provides.…

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Impressions of The Sea

Last week I read The Sea, by John Banville. I went into the book essentially blind; I didn’t know much about Banville and didn’t even know what the novel’s about, but an acquaintance whose opinion I highly respect recommended it to me, so I dove in quickly.

The Sea is narrated by a man whose wife is dying, and the novel jumps back and forth between scenes with her and their daughter in the present, and his memories of spending time with a family in a beach town where he spent much of his childhood. I enjoyed Banville’s writing style; he spends a lot of time describing the setting and characters, so the story feels very real. He seems to have taken a great deal of care in how he phrases each statement, choosing just the right words for what he describes and savouring each paragraph. The narrator’s speech, though, still sounds natural, like someone speaking deliberately, trying to convey an experience even as he himself can’t quite tell why it feels significant, as in the following passage:

A dream it was that drew me here. In it, I was walking along a country road, and that was all. It was in winter, at dusk, or else it was a strange sort of dimly radiant night, the sort of night that there is only in dreams, and a wet snow was falling. I was determinedly on my way somewhere, going home, it seemed, although I did not know what or where exactly home might be. There was open land to my right, flat and undistinguished with not a house or hovel in sight, and to my left a deep line of darkly louring trees bordering the road. The branches were not bare despite the season, and the thick, almost black leaves drooped in masses, laden with snow that had turned to soft, translucent ice.

At just under 200 pages, the novel is fairly short, but it’s slow paced. Not a lot really happens here; the story meanders about, occasionally stopping to linger over this or that scene, or detail of a place or person, like a man freely sharing his memories. Honestly, I didn’t enjoy the novel, even though there’s not much really wrong with it. Rather, I think I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to get the most out of it. The Sea has a nostalgic sort of mood to it, and a reader probably needs to be in a nostalgic sort of mood himself to fully enjoy it.…

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Golding’s Golden Lord of the Flies

This past week, I read through William Golding’s Lord of the Flies for the first time. It’s been a few years since a book held my interest so firmly, and I made it through the novel quickly. It’s the sort of book that reminds me of why I love literature so much, being symbolic but not presumptuous, intense, and realistic. It does have a few problems, but overall I loved this novel.…

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