Reading Roundup

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemmingway

Earlier this summer, I was at the beach with little agenda and fresh out of reading material. I found a thin paperback Hemmingway on my Gram’s shelf, a second printing of The Sun Also Rises. It felt like Spain was riding a crest in those hot days, coming off a victory at the World Cup and Rafael Nadal’s victory at Wimbledon. Plus, I couldn’t stop listening to Delorean’s newest record Subiza, a sublime electronic evolution of Balearic trance from the Spanish island of Ibiza.

Hemmingway’s terse prose, rendered crisp black in a sharp mid-century font was infinitely readable under that high summer sun. The Sun Also Rises was the book that brought to attention the medieval and bloody spectacle of the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. (Recent photos prove it no less bloody in the 21st century: Boston.com: Big Picture).

But the novel starts out with bored socialites reveling in Paris. There are long sections of imbibing at the various clubs and bars, the guys ribbing each other over women in conversations that wouldn’t be out of place among today’s twenty-somethings (post-translation of antiquated colloquialisms). Hemmingway’s stand-in is Jake Barnes, an independent journalist rendered impotent from the Great War. His “soul mate” is a woman named Brett, a lively blonde with short cropped hair who commands the attention of every male character. The first section mostly exists to set up a foil for the remainder of the book, where Jake takes a road trip with some friends to Spain, to watch the bull fights and go fishing.

The festival features some of Hemmingway’s best writing. He finds beauty in the tragedy and visceral narrative of the bull fights. He’s not apologetic for the violence and death – instead he paints it as a metaphor for a life well lived. The fiesta is embodied in the character of a young bullfighter named Romero, who immediately wins the affections of Brett. The love triangle is complicated by Robert Cohn, one of Jake’s friends, and jealous to the point of fisticuffs.

Eventually, the Festival ends and the blood dries in the sand of the great arena. The love triangle disintegrates the various friendships. Jake leaves Spain, returns to Paris. There’s no neatly packaged moral at the end of the tale, and many characters exit the stage without fully sketched arcs.
But Hemmingway’s first (and arguably best) novel captures that spirit that he tried to find for the rest of his days, both in his novels and his life. The moment when we feel most alive: dancing before the charging bull.

Wizard and Glass – Stephen King

Stephen King is a lazy writer. Sure he’s prolific, but he has an approach to creation that lacks any sort of self-restraint or even apprehensiveness. He just latches onto the muse (back in the day with any chemical libation he could get his hands on) and rides her like a crazed beast. And since he’s gifted enough, he usually ends up with an eminently readable novel, never mind the hacked-together world building or fourth wall demolition.

The Dark Tower is King’s “opus”, the seven-novel series that acts as a hub to his meta-verse. The first novel was told as a sort of legend, the fabled gunslinger Roland pursuing the Man in Black across the desert. It was the perfect blend of post-apocalypse with spaghetti western, and the tone was both dusty and epic, but always reverent to the tale at hand. The next two books, while not bad, felt like the cheap sequels, hacked out in a matter of weeks, drawing characters literally out of thin air (Jake 2.0, Eddie, and Susannah).

Wizard and Glass, the fourth novel, is a tale within a tale. Roland and crew camp out on a deserted highway lifted straight from The Stand and the gunslinger opens up about his childhood. Initially, it feels as though King’s lost his way and decides to jump back to tell a story from Roland’s youth, another sign of his laziness. Luckily, it’s an excellent tale, probably the high point of the novels so far.

Roland and his two pals (Alain and Cuthbert) are exiled from their high-fantasy kingdom of Gilead to the sleepy backwater of Mejis. Mejis is a strange land – a blend of southwest Texas and Salem, Massachusetts, a people with puritan morals who wear sombreros and occasionally say “hola”. On a dark wooded road, Roland comes across Susan, a local girl on her way home, and he charms her with his large horse and dark mysterious eyes. From there, the fateful young lovers are as doomed as Romeo and Juliet.

Of course, there are adventures along the way, with “Mexican” standoffs in grimy cantinas, daring prison breaks, even enemy cavalry galloping into a canyon of doom. And there are lots of laughably written juvenile sex scenes.

But King’s gift is the whole thing is readable, a page-turner. None of the dialog or imagery is particularly outstanding, but the overall flow of the story makes the 400 pages fly by. By the end, Roland’s tale, the raw tragedy of it, feels up there with the classics of Shakespeare of Homer.

Maybe that’s why King can afford to be lazy. He can tap into that pure vein of storytelling, and given his limited literary chops, he knows not to mess with a good thing. Just get it down on paper and call it day.

Four down, three to go.

Tropic of Capricorn – Henry Miller

In its ideal form, literature aims to capture the sum of human experience. The peaks and troughs of emotion; the foggy transitions from visceral life to recalled memory; the arcs of narrative as characters conflict with each other and the world. “What a piece of work is a man,” indeed.

And yet, most modern literature approaches this lofty quest with a tired, resigned tone. There’s a melancholy that stems from a mature realization that the world and the people in it are flawed. And so most novels, especially those with philosophical or social aims, do so in a tired voice. Anger – true righteous fury – has become passé, the voice of extremists or the mob.

We’d all do well to read Henry Miller.

Miller was middle aged when he wrote Tropic of Capricorn, but he was drawing from his memories as a fiery youth in Manhattan in the years after WWI and the dawn of prohibition. He’s employed as sort of middle manager for a telegraph company, the definition of the cog in the wheel. But from his vantage he can riff on the boom years of New York, a hot stew of immigration, capitalism, social strife and wild lusts. He comes in contact with people from all over the world, (which is one of New York City’s greatest features), and yet has to slave away at a soul sucking job (one of New York’s greatest failures). Along the way, he partakes in bouts of epic, legendary partying and debauchery, the literal descriptions of which caused the book to be banned from the United States for 23 years.

But carrying it all along is a rage, a disgust with the human condition, especially in a city like New York. Miller’s critique is a modern one. The city, and the business that fill it, compose a machine that “runs” on humans. People are forced to put up with this soul-sucking machine due to their own hungers – which back in the 20s was literal hunger (and other base lusts). Miller sees this cycle as endemic to America, the mythical America that was idealized by poets and politicians alike, writing:

“Walking amidst the craziest architecture ever invented, wondering why and to what end, if every day from these wretched hovels or magnificent palaces there had to stream froth an army of men itching to unravel their tale of misery…Would they want skyscrapers? Would they want museums? Would they want libraries? Would they too build sewers and bridges and tracks and factories? Would they make the same little cornices of tin, one like another, on, on, ad infinitum, from Battery Park to the Golden Bay? I doubt it. Only the lash of hunger could stir them. The empty belly, the wild look in the eye, the fear, the fear of worse, driving them on.”

His critiques aren’t original, but the language he uses to paint them is as vibrant as the day it was written. Thoreau had a similar idea – the nature of man and the press of society conspire to create a “life of desperation”. For Thoreau, the refuge was nature. But Miller sees the natural world as part of the problem, the root of our baser lusts and weaknesses. The book is littered with zoological references, the savagery of wild beasts standing in for businessmen, beggars and drunks.

On America’s rugged landscape:

“The whole country is lawless, violent, explosive, demoniacal. It’s in the air, in the climate, in the ultra-grandiose landscape, in the stone forests that are lying horizontal, in the torrential rivers that bite through the rocky canyons, in the supra-normal distances, the supernal arid wastes, the over-lush crops, the monstrous fruits, the mixture of quixotic bloods, the fatras of cults, sects, beliefs, the opposition of laws and languages, the contradictoriness of temperaments, principles, needs, requirements. The continent is full of buried violence, of the bones of antediluvian monsters and of lost races of man, of mysteries which are wrapped in doom…From Alaska to Yucatan it’s the same story. Nature dominates. Nature wins out. Everywhere the same fundamental urge to slay, to ravage, to plunder. Outwardly they seem like a fine, upstanding people – healthy optimistic, courageous. Inwardly they are filled with worms. A tiny spark and they blow up.”

Miller has higher philosophical aims. For one, he indulges in pleasure, bedding every girl he can lay hands on, seeking an elusive and possibly spiritual connection. Near the end of the book it appears he’s met his soul mate, or possibly imagined her in a nirvana state of bliss. If he can imbibe enough physical pleasure he can escape the pain of hunger in his gut.

In another musing, he imagines if Christ stepped off the cross and assumed a Buddhist nonchalance for the suffering of the world. Was that a way forward, a mythical middle way? This is where he hints most at a new American transcendentalism, a continuation of Emerson and Thoreau, more urban, less puritan.

Henry Miller did end up moving to Europe a few years later, where he met up with a crew of artists and spent his time writing, free from the rat race. But he didn’t stop raging. Libertine Paris published his stuff, and it did get into the hands of thinkers back in America, among them George Orwell and the Beat poets. His obscenity trial and subsequent publication led the way for First Amendment rights (and perhaps the coarsening of both pop culture and respected literature). Miller was the original punk rocker.

That’s why his angry, often lewd work is just as important today as the 60s. America *isn’t* just a country of businessmen and corporations, and the consumptive masses in thrall. It’s guys like Miller, writing with a cutting insight and rage that may be contained, but only for a little while.

Here he paints America with all her seductive and dangerous allures:

“Suddenly I feel her coming. I turn my head. Yes, there she is coming full on, the sails spread, the eyes glowing. For the first time I see now what a carriage she has. She comes forward like a bird, a human bird wrapped in a soft fur. The engine is going full steam: I want to shout, to give a blast that will make the whole world cock its ears. What a walk! It’s not a walk, it’s a glide. Tall, stately, full-bodied, self-possessed, she cuts the smoke and jazz and red-light glow like the queen mother of all the slippery Babylonian whores. On the corner of Broadway just opposite the comfort station, this is happening. Broadway – it’s her realm. This is Broadway, this is New York, this is America. She’s America on foot, winged and sexed. She is the lubet, the abominate and the sublimate – with a dash of hydrochloric acid, nitroglycerin, laudanum and powdered onyx. Opulence she has, and magnificence; it’s America right or wrong, and the ocean on either side. For the first time in my life the whole continent hits me full force, hits me between the eyes. This is America, buffaloes or no buffaloes, America the energy wheel of hope and disillusionment. Whatever made America made her, bone, blood, muscle, eye-ball, gait, rhythm, poise, confidence, brass and hollow gut. She’s almost on top of me, the full face gleaming like calcium. The big soft fur is slipping from her shoulder. She doesn’t notice it. She doesn’t seem to care if her clothes should drop off. She doesn’t give a fuck about anything. It’s America moving like a streak of lightning toward the glass warehouse of red-blooded hysteria. Amurrica, fur or no fur, shoes or no shoes. Amurrica C.O.D. And scram, you bastards, before we plug you! It’s got me in the guts, I’m quaking. Something’s coming to me and there’s no dodging it. She’s coming head on, through the plate glass window. If she would only stop a second, if she would let me be for just one moment. But no, not a single moment does she grant me. Swift, ruthless, imperious, like Fate itself she is on me, a sword cutting me through and through…
“She has me by the hand, she holds it tight. I walk beside her without fear. Inside me the stars are twinkling; inside me a great blue vault where a moment ago the engines were pounding furiously.”

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