21 September 2011

"The Help", "A Dance with Dragons", "On the Nature of Things", "Stuff White People Like", and "Melville: His World and Work."

The Help, Kathryn Stockett

Quoth Lizzie: "You better read The Help, because it's all anyone is talking about."  And true enough, it's been the hot topic for conversation ever since the movie came out and prompted people to ask, "Is it true that white people are the real heroes?  Sweet!"

But seriously, The Help is the story of three women in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi: two black maids, and the privileged white woman who writes their stories.  Stockett's text is written with a straightforward chronology, blessedly not starting in media res.  The first-person narration shifts among the three characters as they engage in their various challenges.  Those challenges are different, but generally the maids are worried about losing their jobs and the starvation of themselves and their children, while the white woman is worried about her hair.

Okay, I'm being a little unfairly glib.  But there is a controversy along those lines: people are wondering if this is a diminishment of the accomplishments of the civil rights era.  It's not that people deny that some white people did help the struggle - thousands of whites marched with Martin Luther King Jr., as The Help mentions at one point - but there is a widespread discomfort with any depiction of that struggle that focuses on them.

Let's start by acknowledging that this discomfort is valid.  Apologist history has had a long and consistent presence in America.  The kindly Pilgrims brought freedom to the warlike savages, remember?  And the idea that white people led the fight for civil rights is a seductive one that absolves a lot of guilt, even if it just isn't very true.  And lastly, any depiction of a segment of a struggle will necessarily be considered representative of its larger trend - if you see a book about a brave Swedish liberator of WW2 Jews, you're going to assume that Sweden was overall pretty good on that issue unless told otherwise.

However, I don't think the attacks on this book are very just.  The idea that books on the civil rights era must follow a specific formula - no heroic whities allowed - is ridiculous.  If we say that The Help is a bad book because it doesn't depict the civil rights era in a way that perfectly represents the actual events, then we're (a) going to be condemning a hell of a lot of other books, like To Kill a Mockingbird, and (b) we're going to be putting a freeze on a hell of a lot of other stories.  It would be one thing if the book claimed that John McCaucasian personally led poor Benighted Negro out into the light of freedom - a blatant misrepresentation would be something to complain about.  But not this.  Books should be permitted to have white characters involved in civil rights, especially when the message overall is so clear otherwise.

No, there's a very good reason you should not read this book, and it has nothing to do with the justice of its depiction of civil rights.  The reason is because it is not very well-written.

Stockett tries to instill dramatic tension through a specific plot device that is extremely artificial: she withholds information.  It is the simplest and most annoying way to keep the reader's interest heightened.  She has a character do something that is a "Terrible Thing" but then refuses to tell us until the end of the book - not because that ignorance is necessary for later dramatic impact or for character development, but just to piss us off.  What is the Terrible Thing?  Why does Miss Celia stay in bed all day?  What happened to Constantine?  I can forgive this on occasion, particularly when the discovery of this missing information forms the motivation for a character or is withheld for revelation at a moment of high drama to unleash catharsis in the reader.  But that's not the case here.  It's just artificial and bad writing, the clumsy string-pulling of an author who doesn't know what she's doing.

The characters are not entirely boring, but they are mostly flat.  Gawky White Ingenue, Sassy Black Momma, Sad Older Negress, Controlling Ignorant Mother... you know these people.  On the basis of those three-word labels, you could write up a description of them that would probably meet or exceed Stockett's characterization.  They even interact just about how you'd expect.

That may be the biggest flaw here: there are no surprises or anything interesting and new.  The characters who are ignorant and sinful in the book all exhibit textbook prejudice that seems like a simple inversion of today's accepted truths, with little subtlety about it.  The main villain is seldom humanized, instead residing in a sort of cartoonish place until she receives her appropriately cartoonish comeuppance.  Most everyone else is secretly Not Really Racist - there are no sympathetic minor villains or realistic characters whose prejudice is a flaw of judgment or weakness, rather than a moral failure.  It's boring and Playmobil-fake.

Read this only if you're interested in the conversation.  Don't read it if you're interested in a good book.

A Dance with Dragons, George R. R. Martin

There is literally almost nothing to say about this.  It's a fantasy book, continuing the series begun by A Game of Thrones.  It is almost indistinguishable from its predecessors - another enormous story set in a beautiful fantasy world and populated by well-drawn characters.  The story is interesting and exciting, with a ruthless willingness to kill pleasant characters and a plot that's drawn from a variety of classical sources.

This is a great work of fantasy, and it's even a pretty good work of fiction even if considered beyond its genre.  It's not quite at the level of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and it is definitely not The Lord of the Rings (I actually heard such a claim, and I felt queasy) but it is worth reading if you like fantasy.

Check it out.

On the Nature of Things, Lucretius

Sometimes it's frustrating living in the modern age.  It's great we have toilet paper, but too frequently you discover that every original sentiment or philosophy was already written by someone in Ancient Greece or Rome.

On the Nature of Things is the best remaining example of the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism, a secular  approach to the world that disdained superstition and endorsed the idea that natural forces dictated the shape of the universe.  While not explicitly atheist, per se, this long poem does seek to prove that much of the stress of life came from worry about the unseen.  Drawing on the best examples of scientific thought from his time in a way that is either remarkably lucky or remarkably intelligent, he advocates "atomism" (the tiny-particle theory of matter that preceded the similar modern science) and sets out to prove various theories such as the existence of pressure and vacuums, many of which were later proven as true at least in principle. Some of his ideas are mildly strange, but overall the whole set of descriptions of the universe are remarkably true even with what we know now, two thousand years later.

There are other delights, such as his assessment of the human mind which would later be used as the underpinning and labeling for Freud's theories, but the real treat are his ideas about the soul and the poetry about metaphysical implications.  Don't stress about the afterlife; do no wrong not because of fear of divine punishment (the gods concern themselves not with us!) but because it will make your life unpleasant.

O humankind unhappy!--when it ascribed
Unto divinities such awesome deeds,
 And coupled thereto rigours of fierce wrath!
 What groans did men on that sad day beget
 Even for themselves, and O what wounds for us,
 What tears for our children's children! Nor, O man,
 Is thy true piety in this: with head
 Under the veil, still to be seen to turn
 Fronting a stone, and ever to approach
 Unto all altars; nor so prone on earth
 Forward to fall, to spread upturned palms
 Before the shrines of gods, nor yet to dew
 Altars with profuse blood of four-foot beasts,
 Nor vows with vows to link. But rather this:
 To look on all things with a master eye
 And mind at peace.
This is the truth, Lucretius says, and it should set your mind at ease.  He tells his story of particles and souls and morals with honeyed words, to make it more palatable - and it is sweet indeed!  Definitely read this, particularly if you consider yourself in any measure a scientist, a philosopher, a liberal, or an atheist.

Stuff White People Like, Christian Lander

Over the past decade, bloggers have steadily begun to recognize that they are already writing words.  And books are made of words.  So they just take those words they already wrote, edit them briefly, and pack them into a book with the same title as their blog (or Twitter account).  Thus I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (from Tucker Max's reprehensible website), Shit My Dad Says (of the titular Twitter account), Badass (Badass of the Week), Passive Aggressive Notes (blog of the same name), and a large number of similar things.

This isn't a new thing - cartoonists, for example, have long recognized that collecting and republishing their work gets them more money for little extra effort.  Nor is it a bad thing, because folks are entitled to all the profit they can get from their writing, and there's a broader audience and more cachet in being published.

But there is one plain, irrefutable downside: sometimes blogs just don't translate into books very well.  This is the case with Stuff White People Like.

If you're not already familiar with the blog, it's essentially a faux-guide to "white people" or rather to liberal middle-class white people, specifically.  Hipster and environmentalist sensibilities - basically any form of elitism, real or perceived - is skewered.  Here's an example:

Since all white people consider themselves to be “creative,” they are constantly in need of products and accessories that will allow them to capture their thoughts.  One of the more popular products in recent years has been the Moleskine notebook.

This particular type of notebook is very expensive and was quite popular with writers and artists in the olden days.  Needless to say, these are two properties that are highly coveted in the white community.   In fact, it’s a good rule of thumb to know that white people like anything that old writers and artists liked:  typewriters, journals, suicide, heroin, and trains are just a few examples.
It's often low-hanging fruit, but it's still funny.  Not infrequently, I have recognized myself in the book.  The entry about bottled water perfectly described my evolution from bottled water, to specific bottled water, to plastic reusable bottles, to metal reusable bottles.

The methodology at work here is to flatly and accurately describe certain aspects of life, highlighting hypocrisies and groupthink with a dry tone and a hidden giggle.  It's a clever way to go about humor - it once powered the funnier bits of Seinfeld, and in a slightly more complex form it's now at work in The Big Bang Theory (with a special extra cloak of jargon).

Unfortunately, it wears thin.  Very quickly.  If you're going to mock the earnestness of a silly elite, it's best to do so with some sort of narrative arc working in the background and some emotional involvement for the audience, like with the Christopher Guest films Best in Show or A Mighty Wind.  Beyond that, small doses are preferable - perhaps in a blog updated once or twice a week, say.  To cram together so much sneering superiority into a book is like wadding up a dozen sticks of Fruit Stripe - it tastes great for ten minutes, then you're left gnawing on a flavorless wad that you can't wait to spit out.

Skip it, read the blog.

Melville: His World and Work, Andrew Delbanco

Melville was as American as hell, which is probably why he wrote a book that is in the running for Great American Novel.  His grandparents fought in the Revolutionary War, and before his death he saw the Civil War and enormous technological changes in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution - all central events on the American character that touched him personally.  He was a traveler of frontiers and a man of many cultures

Even more to the point, his masterwork, Moby-Dick, is of a scope and nature as to be suitable for endless re-reading.  Simple in theme, ornate in implementation, and gorgeous all the way through, it has had a history like that of America itself: a sleeping giant that shook itself awake in the early twentieth century, and whose powerful roar still is ringing despite the intervening decades.

One of the best aspects of Delbanco's work here is the way in which he connects Melville and his work to the larger picture, without gushing quite as badly as I do.  His well-measured prose traces Melville's wanderings, brief literary career, and dwindling end.  Special sections of analysis are devoted to his works, and from my passing familiarity with the field they seem to be excellent summaries of background and theme.  Most importantly for a literary biography, he doesn't fool himself with the polar sins of hero-worship or villainization.  He sees the juvenalia for what it is, but has reverence for the power of Billy Budd and the other great products of the man.

Delbanco's biography of Melville opens with an amusing homage to Moby-Dick, with a dozen different quotes from over the years testifying to the influence and power of the author on literature and our daily parlance.  And fittingly, it closes with an image of his obituary in Harper's: amidst notifications of the passing of Belgian generals and a former Superintendent of Public Schools, there is the simple line: "September 27th. - In New York city, Herman Melville, aged seventy-three years."

Check out this biography - it will delight newcomers to Melville and his hardcore fans in equal measure.

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