Embers’ Voyage into Memory and Truth

Sándor Márai’s Embers is about memory. The first part of the novel is the General reminiscing on his childhood. We learn that the General cannot survive being alone. Yet for 41 years what keeps him ticking is the memory of one day. 

While the General repeats that he is looking for the truth, we only receive one person’s thoughts and memories- the General’s. The General says he wants answers to two questions, but when he asks the first he doesn’t let Konrad respond. When the General asks the second, Konrad scoffs at him for asking it. The novel is not about finding truth, but how we are incapable of finding truth when we are consumed with our own world view. We don’t hear Konrad’s perspective and we don’t even open Krisztina’s diary. Or perhaps a better way to frame it is how the truth is malleable. The General describes facts as being the events themselves. The General and Konrad went hunting together is a fact. The General sees the truth as being the human side behind the facts, the motivation and feeling behind what happened. The truth would be why did Konrad want to kill the General. 

Other than being self absorbed, why can’t the General see the truth? The General places an emphasis on music and how he hates it because he doesn’t understand it. He sees music as the enemy that takes away the people he loves, like his mother and Konrad. Music is the connection to the ethereal. Music allows for self dispossession and with this disconnect from the self the ability to see the truth. The General is never able to disconnect from himself. His story is framed around himself. He never opens Krisztina’s diary that we would consider to be a primary source, a participant’s own account. The General’s life is ruled not by the truth but by his memories. 

An interesting note about the title, at Stanford’s book club, a woman noted that in Hungarian the title means the end of a burning candle not embers. The burning of a candle makes me think of Macbeth’s “Out, out brief candle!” The original title is referring to the dinner candles and how the General’s and Konrad’s lives keep burning while they go through their memories. And how life is brief like a candle. The original title puts the novel in a reflection about how life burns. The English title links to the embers of an old flame and a rekindling passion, but the novel is not a romance. It isn’t until half way through that the love triangle is brought to light. I think the original title is important to show the novel as a philosophical book rather than a heated romance.

The author is ambitious in writing a novel that spans a day and night with no action. All the General does is talk. The tension is created from the General’s great storytelling skills and the sweeping language. If you’re interested in hearing an old man’s investigation into friendship, truth, and memory, this is an engaging read. Dialogue, action, and physical movement are what make a dynamic narrative. Embers has none of that, but is obsessed with memory, truth, and friendship. 

Pausing Life with Niedecker’s The Granite Pail

Lorine Niedecker’s style struck me as a collection of short snippets. The first section I could see as a long poem comprised of short parts. I found it interesting that Niedecker moved from the first section being entirely short poems to then the second and third sections being both short poems and long poems with the third section being more heavily focused on long poems. I think the poem length went along with the time. Most of her short poems tend to be about nature and the yearned for simple life, and so it makes sense for the poem to be simpler in the sense that it is shorter. While the long poems still talked about nature, I felt a greater conflict of nature versus people and nature versus machine. For example, “Wintergreen Ridge” includes a sign that says, “Flowers/ loveliest/ where they grow/ Love them enjoy them/ and leave them so,” (78) showing how the greatest danger to nature can be people doing something as simple and thoughtless as picking flowers. Another message that came through to me was the idea that we need to look at nature and appreciate nature. Niedecker’s poems acted as a way for me to see nature without picking the flowers. Within the same poem, Niedecker details the process of the fly eating plant, how the fly “stimulates leaf-plasma/ secretes a sticky/ clear liquid/ the better to eat you/ my dear/ digests cartilage” (80). Describing the plant is a way to appreciate nature, but Niedecker also has a fun style of conjuring up the fable of Little Red Riding Hood with “the better to eat you my dear” to show how mythical the process of a plant eating flies sounds.

I felt like this collection of poems was speaking to the past of living with the land and it’s present, which I think could continue to apply today, of commercialism. The first poem that struck me with the idea of commercialism was the first line “I am sick with the Time’s buying sickness” (26). I felt a yearning for a time that was simpler before we were bombarded with products and advertisements.

The beginning of “Traces of Living Things” with the Museum and TV reminded me of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which was also published in 1985. With a “Far reach/ of sand/ A man/ bends to inspect himself/ a shell/ Himself/ part coral/ and mud/ clam,” I saw with time humans contemplate who they are and their place in the world (63). A human is a shell because we put so many social constructs around ourselves to attempt to categorize and define who we are such as through gender, race, and class all of which are outside, surface appraisals. Saying that humans are “part coral/ and mud,” Niedecker invoked the idea that humans and vegetation and animals are all made out of the same fundamental elements and so we are all a part of each other. The end of the Museum section with the word “clam” grabbed my attention because I found describing a human being as a clam is very appropriate. We will hold our shells sealed tight against outside currents and other people in order to protect our soft interior.

The Granite Pail made me want to look more at nature, to take the time to stop and look. I think the act of stopping to read her poems is one way of looking at nature as well as human beings, but I feel Niedecker may have wanted her poems to spur the physical observation and protection of nature in the real world as well, which it did for me.

The Black Hood of Citizen

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a book of prose poetry in which many read as narrative essays and poetic memoirs. Rankine has a powerful style in which she conveys a heavy message about racism with a quick punch of one to two lines. The images interspersed throughout the book serve to add to Rankine’s content instead of distract.

Simply looking at the front cover image, a black hood, brings forth multiple messages about race and personhood. First, Zora Neale Hurston said, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” and there is word art of this quote in the book. The black hood stands out against a white background symbolizing how a black person feels most black when put against a crowd of white people. The black hood is singular, conveying the isolation felt by people subjected to racism. The black hood is empty showing how a black person is invisible. It is a hood that has the negative connotation of an uneducated, dangerous gangster. All of these topics are encapsulated by the image of the black hood and Rankine explores them in Citizen.

Rankine’s situation videos are among her most breathtaking work because of the layering of images, colors, sound effects, her voice, and her words. In Rankine’s situation video “Stop-and-Frisk,” a couple of young black boys are trying on hoodies in a clothing store. Police sirens pulse in the background, creating a sense of emergency, but the scene playing out is mundane, teenagers shopping for clothes. The police car lights flare and block out the boys’ faces representing how black people are not seen as people. Throughout Rankine repeats the line “And you are not the guy, but still you fit the description. Because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.” There is the tension of the questions will these boys shoplift? And implicit in that question is race with the prejudice that some people “look” more likely to steal. The scene ends with the boys paying for their items and walking out of the store and into the possibility of fitting the description.

Naked Lunch Review

William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is confusing in how it shifts narrators, places, and topics without warning. There seems to be no overarching structure to the novel other than its lack of structure. There are brief one to seven word titles (I hesitate calling them titles because they are decentralized by being all lower case, right aligned, same font size as the prose, and if they were not italicized they would blend with the rest of the text) that are like a flash of “10 Days Later” on screen. The deemphasis of the titles supports the text’s desire to be seen as a visual form because it is not about the traditional form of a title being a given after a page break, a larger font size, or sectioned off with space underneath it. The deemphasized titles are a quick note that we are moving along like how we see a movie cut scenes and immediately know we are somewhere else. Burroughs uses the word “Fadeout” often that makes the novel feel like a play dimming the lights in order to change costumes and background scenery. In certain respects, this novel would flow better as a play. The heavy attention to visual detail, the spasmodic shifts in scenes, and the many characters with unique characteristics. But the play would have to be rated R for its explicit language as well as the excessive display of sex and violence. Naked Lunch is fascinated with the visual representation of the mental, from hallucinations to government experiments gone wrong.

The sex scenes, particularly with Mary, Johnny, and Mark, reminded me of Crash by J.G. Ballard because both are obsessed with sex and violence. Naked Lunch’s obsession with drugs, sex, and violence shows a side of America that is fueled by the rush, the need to have instant gratification, and does anything to fulfill this need. Crash has a narrative whereas Naked Lunch is more aptly a jumble of short stories and chunks of prose. Naked Lunch’s lack of structure worked well for it because it sets the reader in the mind of the junkie where there is no time only junk time. The removal from linear time pairs well with queer time, time that is deliberately non-linear in order to challenge the standard straight, heterosexual orientation norm. Naked Lunch has a lot of homosexual sex as well as a particular interest in sex and death by hanging. The rapid killing of people shows a disregard for life and highlights the extremity of instant gratification. People will truly do anything for the rush, even kill others and themselves for it.

Naked Lunch has tidbits of social commentary on complacency, the police state, the use of technology and science to control people, the power of the doctor, and political parties. I wondered if these pieces would work better as stand alone short stories because as part of the novel they get lost among the whirlwind of other bizarre anecdotes and snapshots of different characters.

From the Corner of His Eye: Book Review

From the Corner of His Eye by Dean Koontz is an engaging novel because of its many faceted taps into different subjects, quick action, and the vivid and unique characters. I did not do any research on the book before reading it, and so while reading it I was trying to pin down a genre for it. There’s some mysticism with Maria’s card tricks, her ritual for Bartholomew, and Thomas’ coin tricks. There’s crime with Junior’s murders. There’s a bit of sci-fi with the idea of parallel universes. And there’s action.

Moving from chapter to chapter is going from one disaster to the next. There’s two accidents, though one a murder, another murder, a coma, death from pregnancy from rape, death from polio, loss of eyesight from cancer, and the woes seem endless. For such a long book, over 700 pages, it never felt slow, because there is so much happening. Koontz never withholds information from you. You know Bartholomew will lose his eyesight. You know Agnes will die. You know Junior is going to kill two more people. Koontz makes it explicit. This fact telling style makes you all the more interested because it’s not about what happens, but how it happens, and you’ll keep reading to find out how it unfolds and how the characters take it.

I admire Koontz’s ability to have many characters and make them each unique. Often with a big cast, I feel like names are being thrown at me and that I do not have a grounding in who their characters are. At the beginning, Maria feels like a minor side character, but she has a role throughout the book. No one is brought in simply to serve a purpose to help another character or move the plot along and then is dropped. Every character brought in is milked for all of their worth. I enjoyed being pulled into different characters’ lives who seemed to have nothing to do with each other, and then seeing how Koontz weaved together all of their stories into beautiful harmony.

I think using similes for descriptions is a fine balance between the obvious and the ludicrous, and Koontz has his scales perfectly tipped. His similes are fresh. Instead of tossing in a simile to liven up the text which often serves instead to mystify the reader as to how the simile relates to the context, Koontz’s similes help clarify a feeling, an idea, a description and are appropriate.

The ending was almost a little too neat, but after all of the turmoil the characters had to suffer through, it was well deserved and satisfying.

Between the World and Me Review

Ta-Nehisi Coates framed his non-fiction book Between the World and Me as a long letter to his son. Besides being non-fiction, this letter format gives the novel a personal tone, especially as it is addressed to a loved one. At first, I was uncomfortable with this level of intimacy because I felt like I was prying into another person’s life. At the same time, being first confronted with the straightforward salutation of “Son” I felt distanced because I am not a man and I am not family. As I was reading, I realized that “Son” is not simply Coates’ own son, who is not named until page 68, about half way through the book. “Son” is an address to all black men. It is Coates, a middle-aged black man, speaking to the new black generation about what it was like for him to live as a black body in America and how black bodies are still in danger.

Between the World and Me is gendered because it is written by a father to his son. Although gender does not fall under the scope of the novel, Coates recognizes it.
“The girl from Chicago understood this too, and she understood something more — that all are not equally robbed of their bodies, that the bodies of women are set out for pillage in ways I could never truly know” (65).

The photographs are beautiful and give a raw human quality of a scrapbook or journal that I do not think could be wholly achieved through text alone. In the photos, you see Coates and his family and friends which makes his narrative concrete in a way that bypasses the inherent construct of text.

While the focus of Between the World and Me is race, there is a greater human idea of what the American Dream means and how it influences people, both the oppressors and the oppressed.

My favorite passage from Between the World and Me:
“The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing. And it became clear that this was not just for the dreams concocted by Americans to justify themselves but also for the dreams that I had conjured to replace them. I had thought that I must mirror he outside world, create a carbon copy of white claims to civilization. It was beginning to occur to me to question the logic of the claim itself. I had forgotten my own self-interrogations pushed upon me by my mother, or rather I had not yet apprehended their deeper, lifelong meaning. I was only beginning to learn to be wary of my own humanity, of my own hurt and anger—I didn’t yet realize that the boot on your neck is just as likely to make you delusional as it is to ennoble” (50).